CONTEXT: For patients with cancer, uncontrolled pain and other symptoms are the leading cause of unplanned hospitalizations. Early access to specialty palliative care (PC) is effective to reduce symptom burden, but more efficient approaches are needed for rapid identification and referral. Information on symptom burden largely exists in free-text notes, limiting its utility as a trigger for best practice alerts or automated referrals.
OBJECTIVES: To evaluate whether natural language processing (NLP) can be used to identify uncontrolled symptoms (pain, dyspnea, or nausea/vomiting) in the electronic health record (EHR) among hospitalized cancer patients with advanced disease.
METHODS: The dataset included 1,644 hospitalization encounters for cancer patients admitted from 1/2017 -6/2019. We randomly sampled 296 encounters, which included 15,580 clinical notes. We manually reviewed the notes and recorded symptom severity. The primary endpoint was an indicator for whether a symptom was labeled as "controlled" (none, mild, not reported) or as "uncontrolled" (moderate or severe). We randomly split the data into training and test sets and used the Random Forest algorithm to evaluate final model performance.
RESULTS: Our models predicted presence of an uncontrolled symptom with the following performance: pain with 61% accuracy, 69% sensitivity, and 46% specificity (F1: 69.5); nausea/vomiting with 68% accuracy, 21% sensitivity, and 90% specificity (F1: 29.4); and dyspnea with 80% accuracy, 22% sensitivity, and 88% specificity (F1: 21.1).
CONCLUSION: This study demonstrated initial feasibility of using NLP to identify hospitalized cancer patients with uncontrolled symptoms. Further model development is needed before these algorithms could be implemented to trigger early access to PC.