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Electronic Medical Records Hold Clues to Suicide Risk

veterans admin electronic records

LeAnn Shipp, a nurse at the San Diego VA Medical Center, is using VA’s electronic medical record. VA researchers are studying how to best use the records to boost suicide prevention. Photo by Kevin Walsh

Sedona AZ (September 6, 2013) – Natural language processing — part of the technology that makes Google work — could help VA detect suicide risk among Veterans.

That’s the idea behind ongoing research at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and the University of Washington, along with other VA sites.

One study used the technology to find past suicide attempts in VA’s electronic medical record system. Past attempts are the most compelling sign of future risk, say researchers — about twice as strong as the next-best predictor, major depression. Studies show that a past suicide attempt raises the odds of an eventual completed suicide by 40 times.

“The electronic medical record system stores a very large body of clinical notes,” explains Ken Hammond, MD. “We’ve shown that we can use search engine technology to more easily identify those Veterans who have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. That can help us prevent future attempts.”

Hammond recently retired from VA as a psychiatrist but continues to help conduct the research. His group used data on more than 100,000 Veterans. They developed search terms to query the free text — such as doctors’ notes — in patients’ records. Their goal was to zero in on red flags indicating past suicide attempts.

One challenge was ruling out instances in which “suicide attempt” or a similar phrase appeared as part of the documentation of a suicide screening, but with no indication that the patient had in fact attempted suicide.

The researchers developed an automated text search that was about 80 percent accurate, compared against manual checking of each record by a psychiatrist.

They presented the results earlier this year at the annual Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

Hammond, together with VA colleagues in Salt Lake City and Boston, is looking at other suicide risk factors that may show up in Veterans’ records, especially in the notes of mental health providers. One example is childhood abuse.

The work is part of a larger VA research project on natural language processing and the electronic medical record. VA securely stores electronic medical records on some 14 million current and past patients. The records contain some two billion documents in all. The data is available to authorized VA researchers, with strict privacy safeguards in place.

For more information on VA research, visit www.research.va.gov.

This SedonaEye.com article by Mitch Mirkin, Senior Editor Writer, VA Research Communications

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  1. Retired MD says:

    And you thought your medical records were private, especially the most sensitive information pertaining to mental health. Welcome to the world of the Electronic Medical Record. It seems that data mining is not limited to the NSC.

    I can understand the value of data mining in research…a common practice long before the advent of the EMR. Valuable information can be garnered in an anonymous fashion regarding disease progression and associations. But does anyone doubt that well-meaning researchers will soon be gleaning information regarding risky behaviors, sexual preferences, and other highly private information? And for what purpose? To analyse large populations in an anonymous fashion, or to offer possibly unwelcome intervention, as in the VA study referenced here.

    I am not reassured by the disclaimer that access to medical records will be only in accordance with privacy safeguards. It will soon be impossible to receive medical care without signing a privacy waiver that few will read or understand. “Qualified researchers” will than have access. Just who are “qualified researchers” today, and who will be qualified in the future? Your life insurance company? Your employer? The Dept. of Motor Vehicles?

    Just sayin’…

  2. Warren says:

    Get wise. people. We are living in a surveillance state. Government and corporations (is there a difference anymore?) want ALL our personal info, every last bit. Learn how the lowly electric meter has become another information gathering tool. Here: http://www.sedonasmartmeterawareness.com/APS-MYTHS-V–FACTS.html Watch Take Back Your Power. And call APS and refuse the “smart” meter.

  3. Nancy Baer says:

    One of my many careers when I was in the work force, was as a health care analyst and data manager for a Professional Standards Review Organization 35 years ago in Michigan BEFORE our medical records were compromised by medical providers who have been submitting our medical claims with bogus diagnosis codes to justify their receiving more money. Our medical histories are not secure and therefore our records are not either. So forget anything meaningful coming from this study. What we’ll probably see is some cockamamie reason for more surveillance, etc.

  4. Liz says:

    I work in a hospital. I can tell you that your medical records aren’t secure and never were. We have all kinds of problems and it won’t be better. The bigger the health system the more abuse. It’s better to be here illegally because you can give false information and no one cares. We have people sharing i.d. cards and no one gets denied or questioned. Thanks, Doc, for being truthful.

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