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Doctors and Patients Have a New Tool to Aid in Conversations About Diet

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A Black woman, left, sits on an exam table while a Black woman doctor stands on the right as the two converse.
Artificial intelligence developed by UT researchers will aid physicians in discussing nutrition with patients. (Lone Star Circle of Care)

AUSTIN, Texas — Talking with patients about nutrition can be delicate, and few medical doctors have training in nutritional science. But now, physicians will be able to get assistance from a new artificial intelligence system designed by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.

Nutri is the brainchild of Marissa Burgermaster, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences at UT Austin. It offers clinicians a decision-support system for discussing nutrition with patients in minutes and making solid decisions with them about improvements in their diets.

“Nutrition can be a difficult subject,” said Burgermaster, who is also an assistant professor of population health at UT Austin’s Dell Medical School. “It’s a fast-moving area of study, with changing recommendations. It can be an emotional subject for patients. Add in limited time in each appointment, and it’s a discussion that is easily missed. But nutrition can be one of the most critical tools in addressing conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.”

Previous studies have shown that patients whose primary care providers talk with them about nutrition are more likely to lose weight and less likely to develop related diseases, especially diabetes but also obesity-related cancer and heart disease.

Nutri’s user experience integrates with the electronic health record and is designed to present information about a patient’s diet in a way that helps doctors and patients set a personalized goal and track the patient’s progress between visits. It also helps draft a potential note for the patient’s chart to make less work for busy physicians and is bilingual.

The system will first be deployed at Lone Star Circle of Care in Austin, a federally qualified health center that provides health care to all individuals, focusing on the uninsured, underinsured and at-risk populations. A pilot program launched this summer involving about 20 physicians.

“Lone Star Circle of Care is focused on improving the health of its patients not only through traditional medical interventions inside the walls of the exam room, but also through adjustments in the social, economic and community factors that may impact a patient’s health,” said Jon Calvin, chief executive officer of Lone Star Circle of Care. “We know that diet and weight play a significant negative role in many medical conditions. With Nutri, our providers will receive education and resources to help them discuss diet and nutrition with their patients and jointly create an improvement plan.”

The pilot program for Nutri is expected to last through 2022 and will include up to 80 patients. A study will track whether patients end up changing their eating habits and whether they feel confident enough to try new strategies after discussions with their doctor.

“Currently, there are no tools like this anywhere. It’s one of a kind,” Burgermaster said. “I can’t think of a better place to launch this tool than in a clinic network that serves a community that could benefit from these discussions. Nutrition is an important piece of health equity.”

A recently published study in the journal American Medical Informatics Association Proceedings found that primary care providers who used Nutri said the program made it easier and quicker to set nutrition goals with their patients and that the doctors were more likely to set nutrition goals when using the program. Furthermore, a majority of providers said the program would improve the quality of life for their patients.

“This is an exciting new tool in our wheelhouse as providers that will help guide our discussion on nutrition and personalize it to the individual patient with information our patients can use,” said Dr. Lola Okunade, medical director of family and adult services at Lone Star Circle of Care. “Nutri also allows us to get more comfortable with our talking points on nutrition so we can have a robust conversation to help our patients meet their goals and our goals for them. It gives a starting point for collaboration.”

Funding for the project comes from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and philanthropic support.