Medical records are a rich source of health data. When combined, the information they contain can help researchers better understand diseases and treat them more effectively. This includes COVID-19. But to unlock this rich resource, researchers first need to read it.
We may have moved on from the days of handwritten medical notes, but the information recorded in modern electronic health records can be just as hard to access and interpret. It’s an old joke that doctors’ handwriting is illegible, but it turns out their typing isn’t much better.
The sheer volume of information contained in health records is staggering. Every day, healthcare staff in a typical NHS hospital generate so much text it would take a human an age just to scroll through it, let alone read it. Using computers to analyze all this data is an obvious solution, but far from simple. What makes perfect sense to a human can be highly difficult for a computer to understand.
Our team is using a form artificial intelligence to bridge this gap. By teaching computers how to comprehend human doctors’ notes, we’re hoping they’ll uncover insights on how to fight COVID-19 by finding patterns across many thousands of patients’ records.
Why health records are hard going
A significant proportion of a health record is made up of free text, typed in narrative form like an email. This includes the patient’s symptoms, the history of their illness, and notes about pre-existing conditions and medications they’re taking. There may also be relevant information about family members and lifestyle mixed in too. And because this text has been entered by busy doctors, there will also be abbreviations, inaccuracies and typos.