Automated extraction of diagnostic criteria from electronic health records for autism spectrum disorders: Development, evaluation, and application

Gondy Leroy, Yang Gu, Sydney Pettygrove, Maureen K. Galindo, Ananyaa Arora, Margaret Kurzius-Spencer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Background: Electronic health records (EHRs) bring many opportunities for information utilization. One such use is the surveillance conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track cases of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This process currently comprises manual collection and review of EHRs of 4- and 8-year old children in 11 US states for the presence of ASD criteria. The work is time-consuming and expensive. Objective: Our objective was to automatically extract from EHRs the description of behaviors noted by the clinicians in evidence of the diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Previously, we reported on the classification of entire EHRs as ASD or not. In this work, we focus on the extraction of individual expressions of the different ASD criteria in the text. We intend to facilitate large-scale surveillance efforts for ASD and support analysis of changes over time as well as enable integration with other relevant data. Methods: We developed a natural language processing (NLP) parser to extract expressions of 12 DSM criteria using 104 patterns and 92 lexicons (1787 terms). The parser is rule-based to enable precise extraction of the entities from the text. The entities themselves are encompassed in the EHRs as very diverse expressions of the diagnostic criteria written by different people at different times (clinicians, speech pathologists, among others). Due to the sparsity of the data, a rule-based approach is best suited until larger datasets can be generated for machine learning algorithms. Results: We evaluated our rule-based parser and compared it with a machine learning baseline (decision tree). Using a test set of 6636 sentences (50 EHRs), we found that our parser achieved 76% precision, 43% recall (ie, sensitivity), and >99% specificity for criterion extraction. The performance was better for the rule-based approach than for the machine learning baseline (60% precision and 30% recall). For some individual criteria, precision was as high as 97% and recall 57%. Since precision was very high, we were assured that criteria were rarely assigned incorrectly, and our numbers presented a lower bound of their presence in EHRs. We then conducted a case study and parsed 4480 new EHRs covering 10 years of surveillance records from the Arizona Developmental Disabilities Surveillance Program. The social criteria (A1 criteria) showed the biggest change over the years. The communication criteria (A2 criteria) did not distinguish the ASD from the non-ASD records. Among behaviors and interests criteria (A3 criteria), 1 (A3b) was present with much greater frequency in the ASD than in the non-ASD EHRs. Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that NLP can support large-scale analysis useful for ASD surveillance and research. In the future, we intend to facilitate detailed analysis and integration of national datasets.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere10497
JournalJournal of medical Internet research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Complex entity extraction
  • DSM
  • Decision tree
  • Electronic health records
  • Machine learning
  • Natural language processing
  • Parser

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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