Toward better public health reporting using existing off the shelf approaches: The value of medical dictionaries in automated cancer detection using plaintext medical data

Suranga N. Kasthurirathne, Brian E. Dixon, Judy Gichoya, Huiping Xu, Yuni Xia, Burke Mamlin, Shaun J. Grannis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

6 Scopus citations


Objectives Existing approaches to derive decision models from plaintext clinical data frequently depend on medical dictionaries as the sources of potential features. Prior research suggests that decision models developed using non-dictionary based feature sourcing approaches and “off the shelf” tools could predict cancer with performance metrics between 80% and 90%. We sought to compare non-dictionary based models to models built using features derived from medical dictionaries. Materials and methods We evaluated the detection of cancer cases from free text pathology reports using decision models built with combinations of dictionary or non-dictionary based feature sourcing approaches, 4 feature subset sizes, and 5 classification algorithms. Each decision model was evaluated using the following performance metrics: sensitivity, specificity, accuracy, positive predictive value, and area under the receiver operating characteristics (ROC) curve. Results Decision models parameterized using dictionary and non-dictionary feature sourcing approaches produced performance metrics between 70 and 90%. The source of features and feature subset size had no impact on the performance of a decision model. Conclusion Our study suggests there is little value in leveraging medical dictionaries for extracting features for decision model building. Decision models built using features extracted from the plaintext reports themselves achieve comparable results to those built using medical dictionaries. Overall, this suggests that existing “off the shelf” approaches can be leveraged to perform accurate cancer detection using less complex Named Entity Recognition (NER) based feature extraction, automated feature selection and modeling approaches.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)160-176
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Biomedical Informatics
StatePublished - May 1 2017



  • Cancer
  • Data preprocessing
  • Decision models
  • Feature selection
  • Medical dictionaries
  • Pathology
  • Public health reporting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Computer Science Applications
  • Health Informatics

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