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UPMC turns to artificial intelligence to ease doctor burnout

| Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, 12:45 p.m.
UPMC plans to develop new technology to ease physician burnout
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
UPMC plans to develop new technology to ease physician burnout
C. Talbot Heppenstall Jr., president of UPMC Enterprises, a new division at UPMC focused on commercializing medical technology and services.
C. Talbot Heppenstall Jr., president of UPMC Enterprises, a new division at UPMC focused on commercializing medical technology and services.

UPMC and Microsoft plan to use artificial intelligence to try to reduce physician burnout, a condition that affects about half of doctors and might be playing a role in the quality of care patients receive.

The organizations announced the partnership Thursday but have provided few specifics about how they plan to use advanced computing to tackle the growing problem of burnout.

Tal Heppenstall, UPMC's treasurer, said the effort is just getting started.

“We think we can turn it around, so the computer is really an aid to the physician instead of an impediment to the treatment,” Heppenstall said.

UPMC Enterprises, the for-profit research and development arm of nonprofit UPMC, is partnering with Microsoft's research arm. It is the first health care endeavor of Micro­soft's New Experiences and Technologies organization, according to Microsoft.

The organization likely will form a business to sell the product of their partnership, Heppenstall said. He said he expects more information to be available in about six months on how specifically artificial intelligence will be used in clinical settings and on the details of the business arrangement. He said he expects the partnership to tackle other problems in health care after the physician burnout project.

Data entry tasks take up time and attention that doctors should be giving to patients, Heppenstall said.

“What they feel like and what they're burned out about is the fact that they're a slave to the computer, and it just shouldn't be that way,” he said.

About 54 percent of doctors reported at least one symptom of burnout in 2014, up from 46 percent in 2011, according to a 2015 study published in Mayo Clinical Proceedings. Researchers surveyed 6,880 doctors for the study.

Doctors reported being dissatisfied with electronic medical records systems in another survey from the same researchers. The survey linked electronic record use to higher burnout rates.

Clinicians need to enter numerical codes to log patients' conditions and bill for services. There are about 70,000 diagnosis codes and another 72,000 procedure codes, according to the National Center for Health Statistics website.

Burnout and depression were linked to medical errors in a 2010 study published in Annals of Surgery. Surgeons who made mistakes for which they blamed themselves reported higher levels of emotional exhaustion, feelings of depersonalization and a decreased sense of personal accomplishment, with each of those elements contributing to percentage increases in errors, according to the study.

A 2002 study of Pennsylvania hospitals found that higher patient-to-nurse ratios, which are linked to burnout and job dissatisfaction, correlated with higher chances of death.

Neither Microsoft nor UPMC would say whether they are aiming to place an artificial intelligence unit in rooms with patients and doctors. Bill Cox, head of health care strategy for Microsoft Artificial Intelligence & Research, said in an email that the company has developed language processing technology that can recognize words in conversation as well as a person can.

“As we begin our research with UPMC, we hope to apply some of these capabilities to health care,” Cox said in the email.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or wventeicher@tribweb.com.

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