At Vanderbilt, Electronic Health Records Are Beginning To Talk Back

Aug 11, 2019

One of the goals of the virtual assistant being developed at Vanderbilt is to keep physicians from burying their noses in a laptop when interacting with a patient.
Credit Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital Vanderbilt

Electronic medical records are starting to talk back to doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The hospital is test-piloting a system where computers can analyze patient health data and spit out a brief summary.

Vanderbilt has been developing this digital assistant for the exam to solve a real sore spot across the health care system — distracted doctors.

Yaa Kumah-Crystal, a pediatric endocrinologist who specializes in clinical data, is leading the creation of VEVA, Vanderbilt's EHR Voice Assistant. And the hope is that physicians will actually look up from their laptops and really pay attention to the person in front of them.

"What I would love is to be hands-free, taking care of the patient, maintaining eye contact, having a conversation," Kumah-Crystal says. "Then just shouting out to the air, 'Oh, can you refill this patient’s medication?' And not have to kind of break away and just stare at the computer screen the entire time."

Data scientists have been trying to teach VEVA to translate what’s stored in a typical medical record into something the physician could use. That's meant interfacing with the Epic medical record system used on campus. The team has also been consulting with the company, which is building its own virtual assistant that performs more basic functions.

Fortunately the users all have medical degrees, because much of what comes out of her still sounds like jargon, referencing A1C levels and obscure medications. But Kumah-Crystal's team has actually had to dial it down for the sake of efficiency.

"The hardest part is everybody knows how to talk, and everybody has an expectation for exactly how it should sound when you report it back," she says.

Given the pace of modern medicine, the quicker the better. That’s one reason why they’ve had to work on the lag time. It can take several seconds for VEVA to respond, even when asked a simple question — like a patient’s weight, for example.

But that’s all going to be out of sight of patients, for now. VEVA goes live with a handful of doctors Aug. 23, but they will use the digital assistant only to get up to speed on patients before going in to see them.

Kumah-Crystal says nothing kills patients’ confidence in physicians quicker than watching them struggle with technology.