Protected Health Information Filter (Philter): Accurately and Securely De-Identifying Free-Text Clinical Notes

NPJ Digit Med. 2020 Apr 14;3:57. doi: 10.1038/s41746-020-0258-y. eCollection 2020.


There is a great and growing need to ascertain what exactly is the state of a patient, in terms of disease progression, actual care practices, pathology, adverse events, and much more, beyond the paucity of data available in structured medical record data. Ascertaining these harder-to-reach data elements is now critical for the accurate phenotyping of complex traits, detection of adverse outcomes, efficacy of off-label drug use, and longitudinal patient surveillance. Clinical notes often contain the most detailed and relevant digital information about individual patients, the nuances of their diseases, the treatment strategies selected by physicians, and the resulting outcomes. However, notes remain largely unused for research because they contain Protected Health Information (PHI), which is synonymous with individually identifying data. Previous clinical note de-identification approaches have been rigid and still too inaccurate to see any substantial real-world use, primarily because they have been trained with too small medical text corpora. To build a new de-identification tool, we created the largest manually annotated clinical note corpus for PHI and develop a customizable open-source de-identification software called Philter ("Protected Health Information filter"). Here we describe the design and evaluation of Philter, and show how it offers substantial real-world improvements over prior methods.

Keywords: Health care; Medical research.