Health Life

Teaching computers to read health records is helping fight COVID-19

Doctors write information in free text boxes is rich in detail but poorly arranged for a machine to understand. Credit: logoboom/Shutterstock

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 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 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.

This kind

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Vaccine Safety: MedlinePlus

What are vaccines?

Vaccines play an important role in keeping us healthy. They protect us from serious and sometimes deadly diseases. Vaccines are injections (shots), liquids, pills, or nasal sprays that you take to teach your body’s immune system to recognize and defend against harmful germs. The germs could be viruses, bacteria, or parasites.

Vaccines contain germs (or parts of germs) that cause disease. The germs have been killed or weakened enough that they won’t make you sick. But they will spark an immune response, which helps your body fight off the germs. Your immune system will also remember the germ and attack it if that germ ever invades again. This protection against a certain disease is called immunity.

Since these diseases can be very serious, it is safer to get immunity from a vaccine than from getting sick with the disease.

Do vaccines cause side effects?

As with medicines, any vaccine can cause side effects. Most of the time the side effects are minor, such as a sore arm, fatigue, or mild fever. They usually go away within a few days. These common side effects are often a sign that your body is starting to build immunity against a disease.

Serious side effects from vaccines can happen, but they are very rare. These side effects could include a severe allergic reaction. Other possible side effects can be different for each vaccine. Talk with your health care provider if you’re concerned about your health after getting vaccinated.

Some people worry that childhood vaccines could cause autism. But many scientific studies have looked at this and have found no link between vaccines and autism.

How are vaccines tested for safety?

Every vaccine that is approved in the United States goes through extensive safety testing. It