Healthcare & Life Sciences

Doctors notes to data insights: How natural language processing helps decode healthcare

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Aches and pains. What, if anything, is the difference between those? And do you know a “myocardial infarction” from a “heart attack”? What about an “MI”? Is that shorthand, or part of the address of a hospital in Michigan? 

For people, it can be easy to understand the distinctions and nuances between similar words, phrases, and concepts, even technical ones, like those found throughout the medical field. Yet even for the most advanced AI, the contextual clues that give humans accurate comprehension of words and images remain an elusive challenge. It’s a challenge well worth solving, though: As much as 80% of all healthcare data is said to be unstructured

It’s the kind of complicated data management challenge that natural language processing was built to solve

Healthcare and life sciences organizations are generating vast amounts of unstructured data as part of clinical and operational workflows, which presents an enormous opportunity to derive meaningful insights for medical research, population health, and patient care. For example, clinical notes and lab reports have useful, actionable information that, when unlocked, can help improve the overall quality of patient care, accelerate the discovery of new treatments, and increase the efficiency of healthcare delivery.

This approach is at the heart of Google Cloud’s Healthcare Natural Language API, in enabling healthcare organizations to build open, intelligent systems that unlock value from healthcare data. The open cloud approach enables our partners to innovate more easily, and scale more efficiently. We believe this approach will further advance interoperability—and ultimately lead to healthier and fuller lives.

Unlockinging value from clinical documents and research materials

Over the past two years, we have seen just how powerful AI can be in expediting drug discovery efforts for COVID-19, forecasting and modeling COVID-19 cases, and building better models for a host of public health measures. The opportunities extend well beyond battling the pandemic, too, to helping combat cancers, diabetes, and disabilities, and accelerating drug discovery

As healthcare and life sciences organizations look to incorporate new data sources in their analytics and AI workflows, Google Cloud has been investing in providing open, flexible, and easy to use API services that customers and partners can integrate into their solutions, to accelerate their development with the power of Google’s AI technology.

The Cloud Healthcare Natural Language API is one such example, and aims to provide fully managed services that deliver the latest advances in natural language processing in an easy to use and easy to integrate manner. Healthcare organizations can then build intelligent systems to improve care and reduce cost while not having to worry about the complexities of the underlying and fast-changing technology, thus enabling more open innovation in the development of healthcare applications. 

A number of healthcare innovators are exploring the potential for natural language processing.

“Patients come to Mayo Clinic with a history, and that history is well-documented, but often buried in clinical notes. Extracting information from unstructured healthcare data across thousands of patients is a complex problem,” says Vish Anantraman, M.D., Chief Technology Officer at Mayo Clinic. “Custom natural language processing solutions have a great potential to extract higher quality insights from these notes and to deliver more timely, and holistic patient care."

The best insights can often be the unexpected ones, and that is precisely what Hackensack Meridian Health, in northern New Jersey, is looking for. 

“Doctor's notes are a rich space to create structured information from their natural workflow,” says Michael Draugelis, vice president for predictive health at Hackensack Meridian Health. “We are designing new AI-powered solutions to connect clinical teams, patients, and the community automatically from these insights—without creating cumbersome screen clicks and prompts. This automation allows our clinical teams to focus on connecting with the patient."

Hospital leaders there are testing Google’s NLP API to gather information such as social determinants of health and behavioral health signals from large amounts of clinical notes, with approximately 35 million processed. Seeking to achieve the greatest value from natural language processing, the team at Hackensack Meridian Health have specifically focused on extracting information that is inherently not easy to capture in more traditional electronic health records. 

"The extracted insights from the Google NLP API creates a foundational component to map clinical protocols, pathways, and outcomes, to better understand and improve patient care,” Draugelis says.

And at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere, researchers are exploring how natural-language-derived variables could offer an additional predictive value over and above the Veteran Health Administrations's structured EMR-based suicide prediction model. 

To help healthcare organizations achieve goals like the ones above, we at Google draw on the expertise of tens of thousands of data scientists across the company who work every day on building better AI and decades of AI research in language understanding to power the development of services such as the Cloud Healthcare Natural Language API

According to independent benchmarking of Cloud providers offering fully managed healthcare natural language service by tech analysts GigaOm, the Google Cloud Healthcare Natural Language API was among the most accurate in the industry, outperforming other service providers in terms of correctly classified medical entities and relationships, and with very few misclassifications.

Using AI to connect systems and enhance healthcare interoperability

As an industry, healthcare and life sciences organizations have been talking about the importance of data and data interoperability for a while. But our experiences from the past couple years have demonstrated that we cannot be fully prepared for the next global health crisis without greater connections within and between organizations.

Starting with the Healthcare Data Engine, organizations have been integrating and harmonizing data securely across many of their sources—patients, members, operations, research, and public databases—so they can quickly analyze it to get insights, and then make smarter, faster decisions. 

This is the start of a broader vision for a new kind of healthcare and life sciences connected world where enterprises, institutions, and startups will securely collaborate to deliver on the next generation of care. Such a future relies on cloud-based solutions that are as open and flexible as they are user-friendly, compliance-ready, and secure.

We envision a future where healthcare organizations can seamlessly connect data from various systems, unlock the value from data regardless of source or format, and break down barriers in healthcare interoperability and AI to improve healthcare and save lives. 

With these goals in mind, we continue to enhance the hybrid data clouds that customers are building to organize and analyze their information, and we and our partners continue to build on our data capabilities. Given the complexities both within the field and within each organization, we believe the greatest value comes from having partners and tools available to build the AI and NLP technologies most relevant to your unique needs.