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Can patients with dementia be identified in primary care electronic medical records using natural language processing?


Dementia and mild cognitive impairment can be underrecognized in primary care practice and research. Free-text fields in electronic medical records (EMRs) are a rich source of information which might support increased detection and enable a better understanding of populations at risk of dementia. We used natural language processing (NLP) to identify dementia-related features in EMRs and compared the performance of supervised machine learning models to classify patients with dementia. We assembled a cohort of primary care patients aged 66 + years in Ontario, Canada, from EMR notes collected until December 2016: 526 with dementia and 44,148 without dementia. We identified dementia-related features by applying published lists, clinician input, and NLP with word embeddings to free-text progress and consult notes and organized features into thematic groups. Using machine learning models, we compared the performance of features to detect dementia, overall and during time periods relative to dementia case ascertainment in health administrative databases. Over 900 dementia-related features were identified and grouped into eight themes (including symptoms, social, function, cognition). Using notes from all time periods, LASSO had the best performance (F1 score: 77.2%, sensitivity: 71.5%, specificity: 99.8%). Model performance was poor when notes written before case ascertainment were included (F1 score: 14.4%, sensitivity: 8.3%, specificity 99.9%) but improved as later notes were added. While similar models may eventually improve recognition of cognitive issues and dementia in primary care EMRs, our findings suggest that further research is needed to identify which additional EMR components might be useful to promote early detection of dementia.



Maclagan LC, Abdalla M, Harris DA, Stukel TA, Chen B, Candido E, Swartz RH, Iaboni A, Jaakkimainen RL, Bronskill SE. J Healthc Inform Res. 2023; 7(1):42-58. Epub 2023 Jan 23.

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