An artificially intelligent program "trained" with data from thousands of British patients can spot key signs of eye disease as well as the world's top experts, a study has shown.
The system has the potential to prevent irreversible sight loss by ensuring that patients with the most serious eye conditions receive early treatment.
Early results from tests of the scanning technology are so promising researchers believe it could be rolled out across 30 UK hospitals in less than three years.
Anonymous diagnostic data from almost 15,000 patients was used to help the AI "brain" learn how to spot 10 key features of eye disease from complex optical coherence tomography retinal scans.
An OCT scan uses light rather than X-rays or ultrasound to generate 3D images of the back of the eye, revealing abnormalities that may be signs of disease.
The new system was developed by scientists at Moorfields, University College London, and Google's UK-based DeepMind AI research centre.
Findings published in the journal Nature Medicine showed that it was able to triage patients with more than 50 eye conditions correctly in more than 94 per cent of cases, matching the performance of leading experts from around the world.
The program does not make a definitive diagnosis of its own. But on the basis of clinical signs such as holes in the macular, the central region of the retina, or blocked retinal veins, it can swiftly recommend which patients should be seen urgently by a specialist or simply placed under observation.
Under a five-year development program the scientists now plan to press ahead with clinical trials.
Potentially, the system could be introduced in all 30 of Moorfields' UK hospitals and clinics in as little as two-and-a-half years, though this is a very rough estimate and not a set target.
More than 285 million people worldwide live with some form of sight loss, including more than two million people in the UK.
In many cases blindness can be prevented by the early detection and treatment of eye diseases such as macular degeneration and glaucoma.
The study was one of two demonstrating the effectiveness of AI screening of patients reported in Nature Medicine.
The other program, developed in the US, was able to identify signs of brain damage caused by stroke, haemorrhage and hydrocephalus from CT (computed tomography) X-ray scans in just 1.2 seconds.
Lead researcher Dr Eric Oermann, from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, said: "Such a triage system can alert physicians to a critical finding that may otherwise remain in a queue for minutes to hours."
Australian Associated Press