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Study: Statistical Model Could Forecast Future Ailments

June 4, 2012
by Gabriel Perna
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According to a study from the University of Washington (UW), through thorough analysis of medical records from patients, statisticians have created a statistical model for predicting what other medical problems a patient might encounter. This, according to UW, would be similar to how Netflix recommends movies and TV shows for viewers. The algorithm makes predictions based on what a patient has already experienced as well as the experiences of other patients showing a similar medical history.

"This provides physicians with insights on what might be coming next for a patient, based on experiences of other patients. It also gives a predication that is interpretable by patients," Tyler McCormick, lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of statistics and sociology at UW, said in a statement.

According to McCormick, this type of predictive algorithm has rarely been used in a medical setting. He says the difference between his model and others is it shares information across patients who have similar health problems. This, he says, allows for better predictions when details of a patient's medical history are sparse, such as when a patient doesn’t have a lengthy file listing ailments and drug prescriptions.

"We're looking at each sequence of symptoms to try to predict the rest of the sequence for a different patient," McCormick said.     

In addition, the algorithm can also accommodate situations where it's statistically difficult to predict a less common condition. An example, McCormick cites, is most patients do not experience strokes, and accordingly most models could not predict one because they only factor in an individual patient's medical history with a stroke. His model uses medical histories of patients who went on to have a stroke and uses that analysis to make a stroke prediction.

The authors used medical records obtained from a multiyear clinical drug trial involving tens of thousands of patients aged 40 and older. They included other demographic details, such as gender and ethnicity, as well as patients' histories of medical complaints and prescription medications.

Of the 1,800 medical conditions in the dataset, most of them – 1,400 – occurred fewer than 10 times. They came up with a statistical modeling technique to account for these rarer conditions. "We hope that this model will provide a more patient-centered approach to medical care and to improve patient experiences," McCormick said.

The algorithm will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Annals of Applied Statistics.

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