New Zealand tech company develops tool to detect diseases like diabetes

Around 280,000 New Zealanders have diabetes, with the disease almost three times more common in Māori than non-Māori. And mortality rates for the disease are nine times higher for Māori aged 43-64 years than non-Māori. 

Health experts say early screening is essential, but the problem is that just 35 percent of Māori opt-in for these checkups.

But a New Zealand tech company is hoping to help curb the problem as well as other diseases using its artificial intelligence platform THEIA.

Feast your eyes on THEIA, the latest eye imaging diagnostic device.

It's a way to detect eye diseases and other diseases like diabetes.

With a retinal photo, the software uses hundreds of thousands of data points to give risk predictions, whereas currently to get that sort of diagnosis you need to go through multiple tests and doctor visits.

"I truly believe we can change eye care first and general health care second," THEIA founder and CEO Dr Ehsan Vaghefi said.

That's because the eye is the only external part of the body where we can photograph the blood vessels that feed vital organs. Combine this with THEIA and it's a game-changer.

"We can look at the risk of diabetes in the eye and high cholesterol in the eye, and suddenly an image of your eye can tell us a lot about your general health and not just the eye," Dr Vaghefi said.

Auckland ophthalmologist Dr David Squirell has been part of Aotearoa's diabetic screening for over 15 years.

He said the technology is about as accurate as he can be and better than most junior doctors.

He said the artificial intelligence helps to identify those needing help urgently to adjust their lifestyle, diet or medication. 

"Technology follows the patient, we want to make it easier for people to be screened because there are multiple barriers and one of them is just physical," Dr Squirell said.

THEIA has the potential to expand existing screening capacity by around 50 percent and reduce labour costs by 30 percent

But for this Ngāi Tai descendant, it's about better accessibility for Māori.

Diabetes is almost three times more common in Māori than in non-Māori. 

"It's completely portable and it can be run in any setting, it can be run in iwi community centres and the AI really gives us this ability to give the result without the need of a specialist," chief commercial officer Francesca Logan said.

"We are having constructive conversations with the Ministry of Health and the Māori Health Authority and we are hoping that by next time that our technology will be accessible in many places across New Zealand," Dr Vaghefi said.

Rather than a window to the soul, the eye is now the window to the future of your health.