Does NLP Deserve To Be The New Hotness In Healthcare?

Posted on August 30, 2018 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot more talk about the benefits of using natural language processing technology in healthcare. In fact, when I Googled the topic, I turned up a number of articles on the subject published over the last several weeks. Clearly, something is afoot here.

What’s driving the happy talk? One case in point is a new report from health IT industry analyst firm Chilmark Research laying out 12 possible use cases for NLP in healthcare.

According to Chilmark, some of the most compelling options include speech recognition, clinical documentation improvement, data mining research, computer-assisted coding and automated registry reporting. Its researchers also seem to be fans of clinical trial matching, prior authorization, clinical decision support and risk adjustment and hierarchical condition categories, approaches it labels “emerging.”

From what I can see, the highest profile application of NLP in healthcare is using it to dig through unstructured data and text. For example, a recent article describes how Intermountain Healthcare has begun identifying heart failure patients by reading data from 25 different free text documents stored in the EHR. Clearly, exercises like these can have an immediate impact on patient health.

However, stories like the above are actually pretty unusual. Yes, healthcare organizations have been working to use NLP to mine text for some time, and it seems like a very logical way to filter out critical information. But is there a reason that NLP use even for this purpose isn’t as widespread as one might think? According to one critic, the answer is yes.

In a recent piece, Dale Sanders, president of technology at HealthCatalyst, goes after the use of comparative data, predictive analytics and NLP in healthcare, arguing that their benefits to healthcare organizations have been oversold.

Sanders, who says he came to healthcare with a deep understanding of NLP and predictive analytics, contends that NLP has had ”essentially no impact” on healthcare. ”We’ve made incremental progress, but there are fundamental gaps in our industry’s data ecosystem– missing pieces of the data puzzle– that inherently limit what we can achieve with NLP,” Sanders argues.

He doesn’t seem to see this changing in the near future either. Given how much money has already been sunk in the existing generation of EMRs, vendors have no incentive to improve their capacity for indexing information, Sanders says.

“In today’s EMRs, we have little more than expensive word processors,” he writes. “I keep hoping that the Googles, Facebooks and Amazons of the world will quietly build a new generation EMR.” He’s not the only one, though that’s a topic for another article.

I wish I could say that I side with researchers like Chilmark that see a bright near-term future for NLP in healthcare. After all, part of why I love doing what I do is exploring and getting excited about emerging technologies with high potential for improving healthcare, and I’d be happy to wave the NLP flag too.

Unfortunately, my guess is that Sanders is right about the obstacles that stand in the way of widespread NLP use in our industry. Until we have a more robust way of categorizing healthcare data and text, searching through it for value can only go so far. In other words, it may be a little too soon to pitch NLP’s benefits to providers.