Can NLP help patients understand clinical trials?

We’re giving ourselves 12 weeks to try something new

Anirvan Chatterjee
Apr 3, 2018 · 2 min read
Image for post
Image for post
photo: wokandapix

A clinical trial is a research study to see if a new medical treatment (like a drug, diet, or device) works and is safe for people. To join a clinical trial, you need to understand what you’re signing up for. But too many clinical trials are described using inaccessible medical jargon only a scientist could love.

Image for post
Image for post
Source: BARD study, one of our favorite examples of jargon-free descriptions

When potential participants have trouble understanding what’s involved, it makes it harder to make informed choices, and slows down the pace of research. In an ideal world, every medical researcher would work with a trained expert who can write simple but accurate medical language. For example, the website hires experts to write high-quality summaries of hundreds of clinical trials. But until we have better trial descriptions, participants still have to fight their way through complicated text.

Our multidisciplinary research technology team at UC San Francisco launched the UCSF Clinical Trials website in 2016, and we’ve been frustrated at how difficult it’s been to provide simple explanations of each trial.

That’s why UCSF is teaming up with information scientists at Drexel University, to see if we can use natural language processing (NLP) techniques to help people make sense of trials.

Can computers help patients make sense of clinical trial descriptions? We’re launching a 12-week clinical trial NLP challenge to find out.

Over the next twelve weeks, the Drexel team is going to apply a series of NLP techniques to clinical trial descriptions and metadata — and see if we can come up with ways to help patients better understand what’s going on with a given trial, inspired by prior work extracting meaning from trial descriptions.

Alexa and Siri can make NLP look easy, but making sense of complex human language is much easier said than done. We don’t really know what’s going to happen with this project. It might be an embarrassing failure, or wildly successful, or more likely something in between.

But no matter the outcome, we expect to learn a lot about applying NLP techniques to this very real-world problem.

We’ll be blogging and posting our code on GitHub, so you can learn along with us. Please subscribe to follow along!

Clinical Trial NLP Challenge

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store