Doctor AI: Using deep learning to automatically diagnoses diseases

(This post is based on a classmate’s and mine project in our first semester at NYU. I’ve been trying to write it into a blog post for three months and today finally decided to remove the task out of my to-do list…)

Everyone have heard about AlphoGo, the hallmark of current artificial intelligence (AI) research that can beat human Go champions.

But how about using AI to automatically diagnoses diseases? Or, at least, automatically narrows down the range of possible diseases and recommend suitable medical consultants? Imagine how much burden this will take off from the always over-worked doctors. Imagine how much benefits this will do to our health care system!

In this blog, we present a machine learning project that automate the identification of relevant diseases, by using “intake clinical notes” to predict the final diagnosis code. From this code, we can then identity which consultants are relevant.

#### Data Source
As with any other current machine learning systems (or really, even with human learning), an algorithm needs to see enough data before it can learn to make smart decisions.

So for our algorithm, we feed it with a public available medical dataset called MIMIC (‘Medical Information Mart for Intensive Care’). This dataset is composed by a group of MIT researchers, and comprises over 40,000 hospital admission notes for more than 30,000 adults and more than 7,000 neonates who are admitted to critical care unites at one hospital.

(It’s freely available at : in the form of a SQL database if you would like to take a look!)

The complete dataset has rich information, including vital signs, medications, laboratory measurements, observations and notes taken by care providers. However, for our purpose, we only used two variables in the dataset:

– medical discharge summaries for each patients. A discharge summary is a letter written by the
doctor caring for a patient in hospital. It contains important information about the patients
hospital visit, including why they came into hospital, the results of any tests they had, the treatment they received, any changes to their medication, etc.

– the ICD-9 diagnoses for patients. “ICD-9” stands for “International Classification of Diseases, Ninth Revision”. Basically, it is a three digit code for a disease. For example, 428 stands for “heart failure”.

#### Data Transformation / Feature Engineering
One interesting thing about this project is the model needs to learn from text. To tackle this challenge, we used techniques from natural language processing (NLP) to transform text into machine readable inputs – numbers. In the jargons of machine learning, this is also called “feature engineering”.

How to transform text into numbers? We first tried the following methods for data transformation.

* tokenize the input text. This means be break down sentences into sequences of words. For example, ‘She loves dog’ becomes a list of words, (‘She’, ‘loves’, ‘dog’). We used a python library NLTK (“Natural Language Toolkit”) to achieve this.

* turned all text into lower-cases, because we would like to prevent ‘She’ and ‘she’ being recognized as two different words.

* converted all numbers to the generic character \*, so that ‘2017-03-13’ becomes ‘\*\*\*\*-\*\*-\*\*’. This is because evert discharge summary contains at least one date, but numbers are not so useful in our prediction so we just mask the information.

After these steps, we will have every discharge summery turned into a list of words. The total corpus will contain a list of list, with every list being a discharge summary. Not bad!

Our next step would be to turn the lists of words into lists of numbers. For this, the method is called one-hot encoding, in that we construct a dictionary consisting of most common words in the **corpus**, and then replace every word in by its position in the dictionary. Easy!

For example, for this dataset we did the following:

* Construct a vocabulary consisting of words that appeared at least 5 times in the dataset. We basically discard the rare words. After this step, we have a vocabulary of 38,119 unique words.
* Use these 38,119 unique words to index each word in individual list of words. For example, if “the” appeared in the first position, it’s going to be replaced by the number ‘1’.
* After creating the features, we transform each piece of text summary into numbers, by assigning each word (token) with its count in the document.

For a simple example, consider the text: ”harry had had enough”. A Counter object on the tokenized text would yield (’had’: 2, ’harry’: 1, ’enough’: 1). So, this sentence will be transformed into a vector (2, 1, 1).

We also did other preprocess techniques to handle challenges in this dataset, including rate words, out-of-vocabulary words, but these techniques are omitted in this post for simplicity.

#### Model
We used a “deep learning” framework to handle this task. If that sounds pretentious, you are probably right! In fact, “deep learning” is just a fancy name of saying “neural networks with many layers”, while “neural network” is just a fancy way of saying “nested functions”. So nothing mysterious here.

We used a Hierarchical-Attention GRU (HA-GRU) model for this task (Yang, 2016; Baumel 2017). This model’s main characteristics are that 1) it uses a hierarchical model structure to encode at sentence level and document level separately, and 2) it has two levels of attention mechanisms applied at the word and sentence-level. All data manipulation and model training was done in Python 3.6.0, Pytorch 0.2.0.

To understand this model we needs to understand two components: GRU model and attention mechanism. There are some complicated mathematical constructs, but the idea of this post is to describe the main ideas without digging into too much detail, and point to other helpful sources if necessary.

Gated Recurrent Unit (GRU) is a type of Recurrent Neural Network (RNN) models, which is a type of neural networks. Let’s start from the simplest construct: neural networks.

A neural network is a fancy way of saying “function approximation”. For example, suppose we have two variables, $X$ and $Y$. $X$ is a vector of length 3, $Y$ is a vector of length 2.

We would like to discover the relationship between $Y$ and $X$ in the form of $Y = f(X)$.

We might first do a linear transformation on $X$ and get $g(X)$, then throw the $g(X)$ into another non-linear function $z(\cdot)$, and get the final result $z(g(X))$.

So in the end, we will have $Y = f(X) = z(g(X))$.

A neural network model is essentially a graphical way of presenting this mathematical transformation. If we present the previous mathematical formulation into a neural network, it will look like the following:


Here is the coorespondence:
– the first three nodes are our $X$, since dimension is three we have three nodes.
– the second two nodes are our transformed hidden vector$h$. The dimension of hidden vector is two, so we have two nodes.
– the final two nodes are our final predicted vector $Y$. The dimension is two, so we also have two nodes.

With the above understanding of simple neural networks, a recurrent neural networks adds autoregression into the formula by passing the output of every simple neural network to the input of the next neural network. The idea is somewhat similar to an autoregressive time series model. Such architecture helps dealing with long term dependencies.

To understand more about neural networks, the following blog posts are excellent resources:

Attention mechanism, on the other hand, is based on recurrent neural networks. The mechanism is multiplying outputs at multiple time stamp by a weight matrix that might or might not be influenced by the output. There are many implementations of attention mechanism, while the following posts also serve as great introduction to this topic:

After understanding recurrent neural networks and attention, the specific architecture of our model – HA-GRU is easy to follow!

Basically, this model is a stack of two recurrent neural networks.
At the first level we encode every sentence in a document into a vector. This is achieved by first embedding words into word vectors, then applying a bi-directional GRU (word GRU) with neural attention mechanism on the embedded words. The output of this step is sequences of sentence vectors.

At the second level, we repeat the process of a recurrent neural network plus attention mechanism, but this time at sentence level.

### Results
We train our HA-GRU model with different parameter configurations of embedding layer, word bi-GRU layer and sentence bi-GRU layer. We use mini-batch gradient descent for numeric optimization.
After first running the model on our full dataset
(over 29,000 summaries and 936 labels), we noticed that, because of the extreme sparsity of the label set, the results were negligible. So we decided to test a smaller label set and finally achieved an accuracy ranging from 0.01-0.04. In other words, our model does not seem to make good predictions.

### Discussion
While our results were not great, the project was still a good exercise for thinking about, and testing how artificial intelligence models can help with medical practices. It also shows that obviously, our Dr. AI has a large room of improvement!

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