Canada Research Chairs improving health, work, and newcomer wellbeing

Survey after survey show doctors face burnout from heavy workloads. But what if they could use a machine learning algorithm to shoulder some of the burden?

Marzyeh Ghassemi, the first University of Toronto faculty member to be cross-appointed to the departments of computer science and medicine, is looking to lighten the load on health practitioners – and, by extension, improve patient health – by developing algorithms that can estimate the length of a person's hospital stay, need for intensive care or mortality risk.

“We have a really good body of clinical research that suggests patients respond better to all manner of treatments when it’s provided with compassion and with focus, and with an understanding of where they come from,” she said.

“So I think we should use machine learning to let doctors do the doctoring, to actually interface with patients and make decisions about care.” 

Ghassemi is one of 56 U of T faculty members awarded new Canada Research Chairs, or whose chairs were renewed, as part of a double, fall-spring cohort announced Friday by the federal government. Established in 2000, the federal program invests about $295 million annually to recruit and retain top minds in Canada. It supports research in engineering, natural sciences, health sciences, humanities and social sciences. 

U of T’s total allotment of research chairs in the program is 315, making it the largest in the country.

“I want to extend my warmest congratulations to U of T's new and renewed research chairs,” said Vivek Goel, U of T's vice-president of research and innovation.

“The work supported by the Canada Research Chairs Program benefits all Canadians by advancing our shared knowledge and fostering innovation.”

The new and renewed research chairs at U of T focus on fields ranging from artificial intelligence, or AI, to studies of immigrant integration and well-being.

Ghassemi, who was named a tier-two chair in machine learning and health, is continuing work she began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during her PhD studies. That includes developing an algorithm to help physicians determine the best possible patient treatments by predicting the onset of acute conditions and the need for intervention. Part of her research involved tagging along with doctors and nurses at a Boston hospital during their morning rounds to get a better sense of their daily routines and determine where AI could offer assistance.

\Also a faculty member at the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Ghassemi said her research chair will allow her to expand the scope of her research beyond acute cases. In fact, she said her research is increasingly focused not on sickness, but on being in good health.

“The majority of the research we’re able to do looks at people when they’re at their very sickest, and then tries to understand whether there are small differences in outcome that we can have at these very, very sick moments,” she said.

“We don’t really know what it means for a person to be healthy.” 

She sees her tier-two chair, a five-year award reserved for “exceptional emerging scholars,” as a vote of confidence in her work.

“It’s recognizing that this area of research is one that Canadians care about,” she said.

At U of T Mississauga, health geographer Vincent Kuuire (right) said his tier-two chair in immigrant well-being and global health gives him more resources to explore health and well-being among newcomers to Canada.

Kuuire said the goal of his research is to better understand Canadian immigration, which has been pursued as a population growth strategy for over three decades in response to an aging population and low fertility rates. In one recent paper in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, he traces the relationship between an experience of “childhood adversity” – such as physical and sexual trauma before age 15 – to psychosocial health outcomes among immigrants later in life.

“It’s important to be able to understand the factors that are related to their (immigrants) general wellbeing and integration,” Kuuire said.

“Those findings can contribute to broader policies that may enhance or promote a more cohesive Canada.”