A family health team in Sudbury, Ont. is using AI to take doctors’ notes

A family health team in Sudbury, Ont. is using artificial intelligence (AI) to help its family doctors and other health-care professionals save on note-taking.

In December, the City of Lakes Family Health Team started a trial with a program called AutoScribe that listens to a doctor’s appointment with a patient and transcribes everything that is said.

Patients have to provide their consent before the physician can use the software.

Dr. Natalie Goodale, a family physician with City of Lakes, says the software has helped her be more present with her patients.

“What I would do as a patient would come in the room, I’d log on the computer and I would type as they were talking,” she said.

“So I was very good at typing while looking at the patient, but I didn’t realize how much brain power that took to, you know, listen to a patient, convert that in my head, write that down, and then continue to ask questions and sort of formulate what my plan is at the same time.”

Goodale says having AI transcribe the conversations for her allows her to spend more quality time with her patients.

After the appointment, she still has to review the transcription and make sure everything aligns correctly in the patient’s medical records.

But she says the software isn’t perfect.

“Sometimes it has a hard time recognizing when I’m asking, you know, patients about weight loss and recognizing it’s not just a social conversation. I’m actually asking because I’m concerned about it,” Goodale said.

Too much paperwork

On Wednesday, Ontario’s Ministry of Health announced several initiatives to help reduce the administrative burden placed on physicians.

A survey from the Ontario College of Family Physicians last year found that, on average, family doctors spend 19 hours a week on administrative tasks.

One of the province’s new initiatives is expanding a pilot AI program to 150 physicians, which would transcribe their conversations with patients in the same way as AutoScribe.

“Our government is making common sense changes that will reduce the administrative burden on family doctors so that they can spend more time caring for patients instead of doing duplicative or unnecessary paperwork,” said Ontaro Health Minister Sylvia Jones, in a press release.

The province also wants to “encourage employers” to use tools other than sick notes when an employee requests time off due to illness.

A smiling man with a beard.
Dr. Taylor Lougheed is a family physician in North Bay. He says several changes are needed to encourage more medical students to go into family medicine. (Submitted by Taylor Lougheed)

Dr. Taylor Lougheed, a family physician in North Bay, Ont., says the changes are welcome but the “devil is in the details.”

“When are things going to be rolled out? How are we going to look at a trial of an AI scribe for 150 doctors and how are we supposed to really expand that to the 15,000 family doctors in Ontario?” he said.

Lougheed says the volumeĀ of administrative tasks family doctors must deal with has exploded over the last several decades.

“It becomes a mind boggling amount of work and it’s not what family doctors want to do,” he said.

Lougheed says new initiatives to cut down on doctors’ paperwork are the “tip of the iceberg” and much more will need to be done to make a meaningful difference.

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