Secret Lives of Staff: Astronaut to eye doctor

Westmead Hospital doctor Rishi Verma took an unconventional path into ophthalmology.

It’s long way from NASA, but Westmead Hospital has become a launching pad for the career of would-be astronaut turned doctor Rishi Verma.

The senior ophthalmology resident was born and raised in Lidcombe, and originally studied aerospace engineering at the University of Sydney.

He got as far as a two-month engineering internship at NASA in Cape Canaveral before realising his childhood dream was just out of reach.

“Australia didn’t have a space agency at the time and I realised NASA wasn’t taking any astronaut applications, so my mentor at university encouraged me to get into biomedical engineering instead,” Rishi said.

“It was through studying biomed that I ended up designing implant lenses, which is what got me interested in eyes and how I ended up applying for this position.”

Rishi took this photo of OA-6/Atlas V being rolled out to Pad 41 for launch at Cape Canaveral during his internship with NASA.

Rishi works at the Westmead Eye Clinic seeing patients with cataracts, glaucoma, and oculoplastic presentations such as reconstructive eye surgery.

In his spare time, his engineering mind is focused on another challenge: patient wait times.

“Doctors today need to see a high volume of patients every day, and that can lead to problems like long wait times and a higher rate of medical errors” Rishi said.

“I used to have many sleepless nights worrying about whether I made a mistake the previous day in my clinical work.”

Together with a data scientist friend from his university days, Rishi has developed an artificial intelligence program called Stethy that is designed to speed up the diagnosis process and to reduce medical errors.

Patients type their symptoms into a kiosk and Stethy generates a list of possible diagnoses which is sent to their doctor.

So far it is being used in seven Sydney medical centres, and they’re reporting faster appointments and decreased wait times.

“I’ve spent the past three years building a database of conditions and symptoms. What took the longest was coming up with all the possible synonyms for every symptom,” Rishi said.

“The dream is to expand overseas in countries such as China and India, with massive populations and fewer doctors, where this could save lives.”

“You never know where a start-up will go,” Rishi said. “Essentially you’re going in blind, there’s a lot of uncertainty but it’s really enjoyable.”

Rishi knows one day he will have to make a tough decision whether to stick with ophthalmology or make Stethy his full-time job, but he would still encourage other clinicians to pursue their entrepreneurial ideas.

“I am busy but this project has really helped develop skills that are useful to my job such as communication and critical thinking skills,” he said.

“Whatever your hobby is, it could be sport or music or something else, pursue it because you’ll gain so much out of it. There are so many benefits to having a life beyond medicine.

“Life is a branching tree, not a one-way road.”

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