Context: Adverse events in healthcare are often collated in incident reports which contain unstructured free text. Learning from these events may improve patient safety. Natural language processing (NLP) uses computational techniques to interrogate free text, reducing the human workload associated with its analysis. There is growing interest in applying NLP to patient safety, but the evidence in the field has not been summarised and evaluated to date.
Objective: To perform a systematic literature review and narrative synthesis to describe and evaluate NLP methods for classification of incident reports and adverse events in healthcare.
Methods: Data sources included Medline, Embase, The Cochrane Library, CINAHL, MIDIRS, ISI Web of Science, SciELO, Google Scholar, PROSPERO, hand searching of key articles, and OpenGrey. Data items were manually abstracted to a standardised extraction form.
Results: From 428 articles screened for eligibility, 35 met the inclusion criteria of using NLP to perform a classification task on incident reports, or with the aim of detecting adverse events. The majority of studies used free text from incident reporting systems or electronic health records. Models were typically designed to classify by type of incident, type of medication error, or harm severity. A broad range of NLP techniques are demonstrated to perform these classification tasks with favourable performance outcomes. There are methodological challenges in how these results can be interpreted in a broader context.
Conclusion: NLP can generate meaningful information from unstructured data in the specific domain of the classification of incident reports and adverse events. Understanding what or why incidents are occurring is important in adverse event analysis. If NLP enables these insights to be drawn from larger datasets it may improve the learning from adverse events in healthcare.
Keywords: Adverse event analysis; Incident reporting; Machine learning; Natural language processing; Patient safety; Text classification.
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