Twenty years ago, going digital was seen as a panacea for many of the healthcare industry’s problems. Thanks to medical computers, paper medical records would be a thing of the past. No longer would healthcare professionals need to sift through endless filing cabinets hoping to piece together an accurate medical history for one of their patients. A clinic in Australia would be able to send information on a patient to a hospital in New York at the click of a button.

Fast forward to 2021, and ask any healthcare professional, and they will tell you that digitization has created as many problems as it has solved. Even after digitizing old paper medical records, it’s often difficult to convert the information into useful data an EHR system will understand. Even typed notes often need to be recoded as EHR systems cannot decipher what they mean. In fact, EHR systems are often so complicated that EHR fatigue is one of the factors causing widespread burnout among healthcare professionals.

Enter Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP allows computers to process natural language as humans use it in the real world. With the help of medical grade tablets and computers, NLP is rapidly changing the face of digital healthcare and the way we process healthcare. 

What is NLP? 

For over 100 years, scientists have endeavored to make it possible for humans to talk to machines. Not just communicate with machines, but talk to them in natural human language. Unfortunately, while computers and other machines have been able to receive and respond to basic verbal commands for many decades, natural language, with all its complexity, has long escaped the grasp of most algorithms. 

Thanks to advances in machine learning, NLP allows computers to break down human language, analyze its components, and extract useful data. Instead of writing a program capable of understanding individual human languages from scratch, NLP uses machine learning to create a language map from various sources, including written and auditory language. Using this language map, NLP lets computers accurately extract and analyze data from natural human language. In other words, NLP allows humans to talk to computers.

NLP and Healthcare

NLP has many applications across numerous industries, but healthcare, in particular, has been quick to embrace this revolutionary technology. In fact, the largest share of respondents to a recent NLP Industry Survey came from the healthcare industry. NLP allows healthcare professionals to more effectively process all kinds of data in surprising ways. Scientists have even used NLP technology to analyze mutations to SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Below you find just some of the ways NLP is revolutionizing healthcare.

Medical Tablets and NLP Streamline EHR

While the adoption of EHR eliminates headaches associated with sifting through years of paper records, it’s caused new headaches all its own. Instead of jotting down a few quick notes while talking to a patient, EHR requires healthcare providers to fill out numerous fields individually. These fields are spread out across a series of tabs, and each program has its own complex system of codes that practitioners must memorize to do their job efficiently. The amount of manual data input necessitated by many EHR programs has led to EHR burnout among many doctors and nurses.

NLP allows healthcare professionals to take notes without the laborious coding associated with EHR systems. Thanks to NLP, rather than sitting at a computer filling out field after field, a healthcare practitioner can simply handwrite notes directly onto a medical tablet using a stylus. The NLP model will instantly translate those notes into data that the EHR system can understand and input the data accordingly. This not only saves time, but allows the practitioner to more directly engage with the patient since they don’t have to spend as much time staring at a screen.

NLP isn’t just limited to handwritten notes. Healthcare professionals can utilize the technology to extract valuable data from spoken language, further streamlining the digital record-taking process. NLP technology can listen to a conversation between a doctor and a patient and begin the process of charting, even before the doctor picks up their medical tablet to take notes. 

NLP’s ability to understand auditory conversations between people has become especially useful during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Emergency facilities under strict infection protocols can set up a medical computer with a webcam to conduct contactless triage on incoming patients. NLP technology automatically adds the patient’s symptoms to the EHR system as they talk to a triage nurse via a webcam. Not only that, entire telehealth appointments can be recorded and turned into EHR data automatically. 

With the potential to virtually eliminate the manual coding EHR systems have historically required, it’s easy to see why so many facilities are eagerly adopting NLP technology.

Analyzing Virus Mutations

NLP technology is so powerful that it can be used to interpret more than just natural human language. It’s being used to analyze viral genomes. According to the MIT Technology Review, “Instead of millions of sentences, [scientists] trained the NLP model on thousands of genetic sequences taken from three different viruses.” To oversimplify what happened next, the program processed the genome to learn its grammar and syntax the same way it would process natural language. The program was then able to determine which genetic mutations were “grammatically correct,” or capable of producing infection, or “grammatically incorrect,” meaning they had a low likelihood of spreading or producing severe infection. Such systems have been able to predict which coronavirus mutations would be able to evade the immune system with 85% accuracy. Needless to say, NLP technology has become a critical component in the fight to stay ahead of the latest COVID-19 mutations.

The Bottom Line

Natural Language Processing is the next step in the evolution of Healthcare IT. If you’re interested in learning about NLP and the future of medical computing, contact the experts at Cybernet today!