Clinical Text Data in Machine Learning: Systematic Review

JMIR Med Inform. 2020 Mar 31;8(3):e17984. doi: 10.2196/17984.


Background: Clinical narratives represent the main form of communication within health care, providing a personalized account of patient history and assessments, and offering rich information for clinical decision making. Natural language processing (NLP) has repeatedly demonstrated its feasibility to unlock evidence buried in clinical narratives. Machine learning can facilitate rapid development of NLP tools by leveraging large amounts of text data.

Objective: The main aim of this study was to provide systematic evidence on the properties of text data used to train machine learning approaches to clinical NLP. We also investigated the types of NLP tasks that have been supported by machine learning and how they can be applied in clinical practice.

Methods: Our methodology was based on the guidelines for performing systematic reviews. In August 2018, we used PubMed, a multifaceted interface, to perform a literature search against MEDLINE. We identified 110 relevant studies and extracted information about text data used to support machine learning, NLP tasks supported, and their clinical applications. The data properties considered included their size, provenance, collection methods, annotation, and any relevant statistics.

Results: The majority of datasets used to train machine learning models included only hundreds or thousands of documents. Only 10 studies used tens of thousands of documents, with a handful of studies utilizing more. Relatively small datasets were utilized for training even when much larger datasets were available. The main reason for such poor data utilization is the annotation bottleneck faced by supervised machine learning algorithms. Active learning was explored to iteratively sample a subset of data for manual annotation as a strategy for minimizing the annotation effort while maximizing the predictive performance of the model. Supervised learning was successfully used where clinical codes integrated with free-text notes into electronic health records were utilized as class labels. Similarly, distant supervision was used to utilize an existing knowledge base to automatically annotate raw text. Where manual annotation was unavoidable, crowdsourcing was explored, but it remains unsuitable because of the sensitive nature of data considered. Besides the small volume, training data were typically sourced from a small number of institutions, thus offering no hard evidence about the transferability of machine learning models. The majority of studies focused on text classification. Most commonly, the classification results were used to support phenotyping, prognosis, care improvement, resource management, and surveillance.

Conclusions: We identified the data annotation bottleneck as one of the key obstacles to machine learning approaches in clinical NLP. Active learning and distant supervision were explored as a way of saving the annotation efforts. Future research in this field would benefit from alternatives such as data augmentation and transfer learning, or unsupervised learning, which do not require data annotation.

Keywords: machine learning; medical informatics; medical informatics applications; natural language processing.

Publication types

  • Review