Character-Level Neural Language Modelling in the Clinical Domain

Stud Health Technol Inform. 2020 Jun 16:270:83-87. doi: 10.3233/SHTI200127.


Word embeddings have become the predominant representation scheme on a token-level for various clinical natural language processing (NLP) tasks. More recently, character-level neural language models, exploiting recurrent neural networks, have again received attention, because they achieved similar performance against various NLP benchmarks. We investigated to what extent character-based language models can be applied to the clinical domain and whether they are able to capture reasonable lexical semantics using this maximally fine-grained representation scheme. We trained a long short-term memory network on an excerpt from a table of de-identified 50-character long problem list entries in German, each of which assigned to an ICD-10 code. We modelled the task as a time series of one-hot encoded single character inputs. After the training phase we accessed the top 10 most similar character-induced word embeddings related to a clinical concept via a nearest neighbour search and evaluated the expected interconnected semantics. Results showed that traceable semantics were captured on a syntactic level above single characters, addressing the idiosyncratic nature of clinical language. The results support recent work on general language modelling that raised the question whether token-based representation schemes are still necessary for specific NLP tasks.

Keywords: Electronic Health Records; Natural Language Processing; Neural Networks.

MeSH terms

  • Cluster Analysis
  • Language*
  • Natural Language Processing*
  • Neural Networks, Computer
  • Patient Care
  • Semantics