New research on software to help doctors treat premature babies

New research on software to help doctors treat premature babies

A team of Scottish scientists are carrying out research which will help doctors and nurses in the treatment being provided to premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).

Research teams from the University of Aberdeen, the University of Edinburgh, and NHS Lothian are starting a new project, BabyTalk, which will use a computer to generate an English summary of the baby’s medical history and current health status. Reports will be produced automatically from the baby’s electronic medical notes.

BabyTalk could lead to better decisions being made by staff and therefore better care for the babies. It could also help staff write reports, as well as inform and reassure families of how their baby is.

Professor Jim Hunter, Department of Computing Science, is part of the University of Aberdeen team involved in the BabyTalk research. He said: “Medical professionals face the daily challenge of successfully treating patients in intensive care units. They are under immense pressure to decide the best treatment method available and in so doing have to deal with up to hundreds of pages of detailed lab results and medical history of patients.”

“The doctor or nurse may only have a few minutes to decide what should be done to help their patient and could benefit from having a short summary of the patient’s condition.”

“BabyTalk will generate such summaries for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units - at any time of the day or night.”

Dr Yvonne Freer, of Nursing Studies, University of Edinburgh, explains: “BabyTalk is an extremely exciting project to be involved in. Automatically written summaries could be used for purposes other than immediate clinical decision making; for example, at the end of a long 12.5-hour shift, staff have to write a report of what has happened on their shift to give to those taking over. If this could be done automatically, it would save time and avoid the possibility of significant events being forgotten.”

“Although this project focuses on premature babies in NICUs, it is hoped the principles could be applied more widely to adults.”

The software being developed in BabyTalk will run on computers beside the cots of babies in NICUs within the hospitals and the computers will be operated using hospitals’ networks.

BabyTalk builds on previous research by collaborators involved in the Neonate, SumTime, and BabyLink projects. Research in Neonate has shown that doctors and other medical professionals are likely to make better treatment decisions if they are shown written summary reports of patient’s data instead of detailed graphs and figures.

Research in SumTime has shown that it is possible for computer systems, using artificial intelligence and natural language generation technology, to generate written summaries of meteorological data that are as good as human-written weather forecasts. BabyTalk will extend the automatic data-summarisation technology developed in SumTime to the more complex task of automatically generating summaries of medical data, similar to the summaries which Neonate showed helped doctors.

BabyTalk also builds on research in BabyLink on improving communication between staff and parents of babies in the NICU. Summary reports on a baby’s diagnosis, investigations and treatments are automatically produced for parents. These reports include explanatory information which helps parents understand their baby’s problems and treatments. Reports for parents are encrypted and posted onto a secure internet website, so family members and friends can access them from anywhere in the world, using their own usernames and passwords from a web browser.

The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has provided nearly £500,000 of funding towards the BabyTalk research. It is a four-year, collaborative project between Professor Jim Hunter (project leader), Drs Ehud Reiter, and Yaji Sripada, from the University of Aberdeen (Department of Computing Science); and Dr Yvonne Freer, Professors Neil McIntosh and Robert Logie, from the University of Edinburgh (Nursing Studies, Child Life and Health, and Psychology).

Clevermed, a medical software company based in Edinburgh, which designs and sells computer systems for use in neonatal ICUs, is also assisting with the project.

Professor Hunter added: “If Babytalk is successful, we hope that it will lead to improved medical care throughout the NHS, not just in neonatal intensive care.

“The technology could potentially be used in many other health and safety contexts as well, for example, the University of Aberdeen team is also investigating generating textual summaries for scuba divers to assist with the safety aspects of their dives.”

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