Background: There are large amounts of unstructured, free-text information about quality of health care available on the Internet in blogs, social networks, and on physician rating websites that are not captured in a systematic way. New analytical techniques, such as sentiment analysis, may allow us to understand and use this information more effectively to improve the quality of health care.
Objective: We attempted to use machine learning to understand patients' unstructured comments about their care. We used sentiment analysis techniques to categorize online free-text comments by patients as either positive or negative descriptions of their health care. We tried to automatically predict whether a patient would recommend a hospital, whether the hospital was clean, and whether they were treated with dignity from their free-text description, compared to the patient's own quantitative rating of their care.
Methods: We applied machine learning techniques to all 6412 online comments about hospitals on the English National Health Service website in 2010 using Weka data-mining software. We also compared the results obtained from sentiment analysis with the paper-based national inpatient survey results at the hospital level using Spearman rank correlation for all 161 acute adult hospital trusts in England.
Results: There was 81%, 84%, and 89% agreement between quantitative ratings of care and those derived from free-text comments using sentiment analysis for cleanliness, being treated with dignity, and overall recommendation of hospital respectively (kappa scores: .40-.74, P<.001 for all). We observed mild to moderate associations between our machine learning predictions and responses to the large patient survey for the three categories examined (Spearman rho 0.37-0.51, P<.001 for all).
Conclusions: The prediction accuracy that we have achieved using this machine learning process suggests that we are able to predict, from free-text, a reasonably accurate assessment of patients' opinion about different performance aspects of a hospital and that these machine learning predictions are associated with results of more conventional surveys.
Keywords: Internet; machine learning; patient experience; quality.