Using natural language processing to extract structured epilepsy data from unstructured clinic letters

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Beata Fonferko-Shadrach Arron Lacey Ashley Akbari Simon Thompson David Ford Ronan Lyons Mark Rees Owen Pickrell
Published online: Aug 28, 2018

Electronic health records (EHR) are a powerful resource in enabling large-scale healthcare research. EHRs often lack detailed disease-specific information that is collected in free text within clinical settings. This challenge can be addressed by using Natural Language Processing (NLP) to derive and extract detailed clinical information from free text.

Objectives and Approach
Using a training sample of 40 letters, we used the General Architecture for Text Engineering (GATE) framework to build custom rule sets for nine categories of epilepsy information as well as clinic date and date of birth. We used a validation set of 200 clinic letters to compare the results of our algorithm to a separate manual review by a clinician, where we evaluated a “per item” and a “per letter” approach for each category.

The “per letter” approach identified 1,939 items of information with overall precision, recall and F1-score of 92.7%, 77.7% and 85.6%. Precision and recall for epilepsy specific categories were: diagnosis (85.3%,92.4%),  type (93.7%,83.2%), focal seizure (99.0%,68.3%), generalised seizure (92.5%,57.0%), seizure frequency (92.0%,52.3%), medication (96.1%,94.0%), CT (66.7%,47.1%), MRI (96.6%,51.4%) and EEG (95.8%,40.6%). By combining all items per category, per letter we were able to achieve higher precision, recall and F1-scores of 94.6%, 84.2% and 89.0% across all categories.

Our results demonstrate that NLP techniques can be used to accurately extract rich phenotypic details from clinic letters that is often missing from routinely-collected data. Capturing these new data types provides a platform for conducting novel precision neurology research, in addition to potential applicability to other disease areas.

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