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Using AI to support family doctors and their patients

May 24, 2024

Whether to decrease the average of 19 hours per week that family physicians spend on administrative tasks, including documenting patient visits and writing referrals, or using technology to enhance the patient experience, artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming an important part of family medicine.

Recently, the Government of Ontario announced a pilot program to test AI scribes with more than 150 family doctors. Already, some family doctors are conducting their own pilot programs and integrating AI scribes into their practices.  

At the start of 2024, Dr. Ali Damji, a family doctor in Mississauga, was looking for ways to make completing paperwork more efficient and help prioritize work-life balance.

“As a new year’s resolution, I wanted to focus on my wellness and find more joy in my practice,” said Dr. Damji.

To do this, he completed free trials of three different AI scribe programs that were compatible with his EMR system before eventually settling on the one that best suited his needs.

Like other AI scribe programs, once a patient consents to having their conversation recorded, the program listens and transcribes the conversation into SOAP notes, which the doctor reviews and copies into the patients’ EMR. A SOAP note stands for subjective (information relayed by the patient), objective (information relayed by the doctor), assessment (verbalized information by the physician during the exam), and a plan of action for patient care.

Dr. Damji notes that although there is a learning curve and doctors must initially invest time to familiarize themselves with the technology, the time family doctors get back is a game-changer.  “Overall, using a scribe saves me an entire day per week that I can use to better serve my patients and community,” said Dr. Damji. “It’s an easy technology to learn that has decreased my administrative workload.”

AI scribes can also have an impact on the quality of patient care.

Dave Courtemanche, who recently retired from his role as the Executive Director of City of Lakes Family Health Team in Greater Sudbury shared that his team began piloting an AI scribe in December 2023. He notes that before the team began using the technology, some physicians reported struggling to be engaged in conversations with their patients during appointments because they were distracted by having to update their patient’s chart in real time.

“Now, their doctor is able to be focused and immersed in the conversation with their patient,” says Mr. Courtemanche. “The patient walks away from the appointment feeling heard and the physicians have less administrative work on their plates.”

Although AI scribes show promise in decreasing the admin burden on family physicians, more government-focused solutions are needed to address the pain points for physicians and their patients.

“AI represents a new toolbox for family physicians in terms of the possibilities for how they can complete admin and clinical work, and support them to be present for their patients,” said Mr. Courtemanche. “But, more should be done to support family doctors”

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