Assessing the Performance of Clinical Natural Language Processing Systems: Development of an Evaluation Methodology

The study presents how Savana evaluates its clinical Natural Language Processing (NLP) technology, EHRead, on a real use-case study on asthma. It concludes that by following the five phases, NLP experts can assure the robustness of their evaluation and avoid the unnecessary investment of human and financial resources. 


Clinical natural language processing (cNLP) systems are of crucial importance due to their increasing capability in extracting clinically important information from free text contained in Electronic Medical Records.

The conversion of a nonstructured representation of a patient’s clinical history into a structured format enables medical doctors to generate clinical knowledge at a level that was not possible before.

Finally, the interpretation of the insights gained provided by cNLP systems has a great potential in driving decisions about clinical practice. However, carrying out robust evaluations of those cNLP systems is a complex task that is hindered by a lack of standard guidance on how to systematically approach them.

Our objective was to offer natural language processing (NLP) experts a methodology for the evaluation of cNLP systems to assist them in carrying out this task.

By following the proposed phases, the robustness and representativeness of the performance metrics of their own cNLP systems can be assured.

The proposed evaluation methodology comprised five phases: (1) the definition of the target population, (2) the statistical document collection, (3) the design of the annotation guidelines and annotation project, (4) the external annotations, and (5) the cNLP system performance evaluation.

We presented the application of all phases to evaluate the performance of a cNLP system called “EHRead Technology” (developed by Savana), applied in a study on patients with asthma.

As part of the evaluation methodology, we introduced the Sample Size Calculator for Evaluations (SLiCE), a software tool that calculates the number of documents needed to achieve a statistically useful and resourceful gold standard.

The application of the proposed evaluation methodology on a real use-case study of patients with asthma revealed the benefit of the different phases for cNLP system evaluations.

By using SLiCE to adjust the number of documents needed, a meaningful and resourceful gold standard was created.

In the presented use-case, using as little as 519 EHRs, it was possible to evaluate the performance of the cNLP system and obtain performance metrics for the primary variable within the expected CIs.

We showed that our evaluation methodology can offer guidance to NLP experts on how to approach the evaluation of their cNLP systems.

By following the five phases, NLP experts can assure the robustness of their evaluation and avoid unnecessary investment of human and financial resources.

Besides the theoretical guidance, we offer SLiCE as an easy-to-use, open-source Python library.

NLP evaluation system infographic

Dr. Miren Taberna, Medical Oncologist and Chief Scientific Officer at Savana, was interviewed by The Evidence Based
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