OBJECTIVE - Secure messaging through patient portals is an increasingly popular way that consumers interact with healthcare providers. The increasing burden of secure messaging can affect clinic staffing and workflows. Manual management of portal messages is costly and time consuming. Automated classification of portal messages could potentially expedite message triage and delivery of care.
MATERIALS AND METHODS - We developed automated patient portal message classifiers with rule-based and machine learning techniques using bag of words and natural language processing (NLP) approaches. To evaluate classifier performance, we used a gold standard of 3253 portal messages manually categorized using a taxonomy of communication types (i.e., main categories of informational, medical, logistical, social, and other communications, and subcategories including prescriptions, appointments, problems, tests, follow-up, contact information, and acknowledgement). We evaluated our classifiers' accuracies in identifying individual communication types within portal messages with area under the receiver-operator curve (AUC). Portal messages often contain more than one type of communication. To predict all communication types within single messages, we used the Jaccard Index. We extracted the variables of importance for the random forest classifiers.
RESULTS - The best performing approaches to classification for the major communication types were: logistic regression for medical communications (AUC: 0.899); basic (rule-based) for informational communications (AUC: 0.842); and random forests for social communications and logistical communications (AUCs: 0.875 and 0.925, respectively). The best performing classification approach of classifiers for individual communication subtypes was random forests for Logistical-Contact Information (AUC: 0.963). The Jaccard Indices by approach were: basic classifier, Jaccard Index: 0.674; Naïve Bayes, Jaccard Index: 0.799; random forests, Jaccard Index: 0.859; and logistic regression, Jaccard Index: 0.861. For medical communications, the most predictive variables were NLP concepts (e.g., Temporal_Concept, which maps to 'morning', 'evening' and Idea_or_Concept which maps to 'appointment' and 'refill'). For logistical communications, the most predictive variables contained similar numbers of NLP variables and words (e.g., Telephone mapping to 'phone', 'insurance'). For social and informational communications, the most predictive variables were words (e.g., social: 'thanks', 'much', informational: 'question', 'mean').
CONCLUSIONS - This study applies automated classification methods to the content of patient portal messages and evaluates the application of NLP techniques on consumer communications in patient portal messages. We demonstrated that random forest and logistic regression approaches accurately classified the content of portal messages, although the best approach to classification varied by communication type. Words were the most predictive variables for classification of most communication types, although NLP variables were most predictive for medical communication types. As adoption of patient portals increases, automated techniques could assist in understanding and managing growing volumes of messages. Further work is needed to improve classification performance to potentially support message triage and answering.
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