Qualifying Certainty in Radiology Reports through Deep Learning-Based Natural Language Processing

AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2021 Oct;42(10):1755-1761. doi: 10.3174/ajnr.A7241. Epub 2021 Aug 19.


Background and purpose: Communication gaps exist between radiologists and referring physicians in conveying diagnostic certainty. We aimed to explore deep learning-based bidirectional contextual language models for automatically assessing diagnostic certainty expressed in the radiology reports to facilitate the precision of communication.

Materials and methods: We randomly sampled 594 head MR imaging reports from an academic medical center. We asked 3 board-certified radiologists to read sentences from the Impression section and assign each sentence 1 of the 4 certainty categories: "Non-Definitive," "Definitive-Mild," "Definitive-Strong," "Other." Using the annotated 2352 sentences, we developed and validated a natural language-processing system based on the start-of-the-art bidirectional encoder representations from transformers (BERT), which can capture contextual uncertainty semantics beyond the lexicon level. Finally, we evaluated 3 BERT variant models and reported standard metrics including sensitivity, specificity, and area under the curve.

Results: A κ score of 0.74 was achieved for interannotator agreement on uncertainty interpretations among 3 radiologists. For the 3 BERT variant models, the biomedical variant (BioBERT) achieved the best macro-average area under the curve of 0.931 (compared with 0.928 for the BERT-base and 0.925 for the clinical variant [ClinicalBERT]) on the validation data. All 3 models yielded high macro-average specificity (93.13%-93.65%), while the BERT-base obtained the highest macro-average sensitivity of 79.46% (compared with 79.08% for BioBERT and 78.52% for ClinicalBERT). The BioBERT model showed great generalizability on the heldout test data with a macro-average sensitivity of 77.29%, specificity of 92.89%, and area under the curve of 0.93.

Conclusions: A deep transfer learning model can be developed to reliably assess the level of uncertainty communicated in a radiology report.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Deep Learning*
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Natural Language Processing
  • Radiography
  • Radiology*