April 12, 2021 at 07:41PM

While the thought of applying artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare might bring to mind images of a robotic doctor’s office where scans, questionnaires and prescription printouts could be all it takes to tend to patient care, the reality of using the technology in this sector is a little less glamorous, but nonetheless critical. In fact, one of the key benefits of bringing AI and machine learning to healthcare is caring for the caretakers themselves by reducing burnout.

According to a study conducted by Medscape, the physician burnout rate in 2020 was 42 percent overall. This corresponds to an earlier figure from the AMA that placed physician burnout at just under 44 percent. While it might be easy to assume that much of this burnout comes from dealing with life-or-death patient care situations, the truth is far more mundane: it comes from the use of electronic health records (EHR).

Since 2009, when the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act pumped $27 billion into the healthcare system to encourage the use of EHR, they have pretty much become standard across the board. According to one report, 96 percent of non-federal acute care hospitals and 86 percent of private practices were using EHR by 2015 and 2017 respectively. Initially meant to simplify record keeping and bring a greater degree of accuracy and trackability to patient care, the system instead seems to have become more of a hindrance than a help.

Indeed, the Medscape survey reports that nearly two-thirds of doctors say their burnout was caused by “excessive bureaucratic demands” along with long working hours. An earlier study conducted by the University of New Mexico (UNM) showed that roughly 40 percent of stress on clinicians is caused by the use of EHR, in part because they have become much more than a repository of patient health data; they are now used as storehouses of information to protect against malpractice suits, help with billing and measure quality assurance initiatives.

“Years ago the medical record primarily served one purpose — for the benefit of the patient to support patient continuity. Today there are at least four more,” said study author Philip Kroth, director of Biomedical Informatics Research, Training and Scholarship at UNM. “It seems as though everyone wants to add another checkbox or drop-down to the record, but no one is looking at the sum total of how all these additional data entry requirements are adding up or whether they actually benefit the patient or the healthcare system.” 

(Even More) Technology To The Rescue!

So if EHR technology is causing physician burnout, what’s the solution?

More technology naturally, in the form of AI.

As reported Monday (April 12), Microsoft just completed the purchase of Nuance Communications, the company behind Apple’s Siri voice assistant and Dragon speech recognition software. The purchase, which was Microsoft’s largest since LinkedIn, will see the two companies focusing on ways to use AI to “listen” in on doctor/patient consultations, take notes, and integrate that information with the patient’s EHR.

The announcement follows on from other AI solutions that have been introduced of late to help deal with the EHR issue. Last year, a company called Diagnoss announced an AI-powered coding assistant that could work inside EHR to help simplify medical coding and help doctors avoid errors. The founder of Diagnoss likened the tech to an assistant whispering in a doctor’s ear.

Even more recently, last month Michigan Medicine said it was integrating 3M’s suit of AI tools called 3M Health Information Systems into its three hospitals and 125 outpatient clinics. According to University of Michigan Health System Associate Chief Medical Information Officer Jeff Terrell, the move is designed to “ease the documentation burden and streamline EHR work for Michigan Medicine providers and staff across the continuum of care settings, to create more time for their value added patient care activities.”

With an upcoming shortage of healthcare workers and more stress on those who do enter the field, these AI-based solutions couldn’t come fast enough, say some healthcare professionals.

“When nurses must fight the EHR to do basic tasks, spending more time searching and documenting in the record, patient care and hospital throughput slows while frustration and burnout rates escalate,” Toni Laracuente, RN, chief nursing officer at EHR vendor Medicomp Systems, told Healthcare IT News in an interview about how artificial intelligence can benefit the healthcare workplace. “Using AI-powered solutions that streamline clinical workflows and bring the important clinical details to the forefront at the moment we need it, not only can we make faster, more informed decisions, but nurses, doctors and patient care staff have more time to interact with patients and perform clinical work, which ultimately improves staff and patient satisfaction.”

 

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