My mother often says that my handwriting is so bad I should have been a doctor. Luckily, digital systems like electronic medical records (EMRs) and computerized pharmacy ordering systems have largely taken the legibility factor out of medicine, especially when it comes to doctors’ and nurses’ notes.
Those notes—attached to millions of patient records—have the potential to do so much more than simply capture clinical observations. Within them lies a treasure trove of data about disease burden, risk factors, drug interactions and more, waiting to be mined for new insights that could dramatically impact research and care.
If the data can be extracted, that is.
The difficulty is that, to a computer, clinical notes are “unstructured” data. There are no standard entries, no numbers to be plugged into a field—just text in a box. And not every doctor or nurse uses the same words to describe the same thing.
So, how can we make the unstructured structured?