AutoDiscern: Rating the Quality of Online Health Information with Hierarchical Encoder Attention-based Neural Networks


Patients increasingly turn to search engines and online content before, or in place of, talking with a health professional. Low quality health information, which is common on the internet, presents risks to the patient in the form of misinformation and a possibly poorer relationship with their physician. To address this, the DISCERN criteria (developed at University of Oxford) are used to evaluate the quality of online health information. However, patients are unlikely to take the time to apply these criteria to the health websites they visit. We built an automated implementation of the DISCERN instrument (Brief version) using machine learning models. We compared the performance of a traditional model (Random Forest) with that of a hierarchical encoder attention-based neural network (HEA) model using two language embeddings, BERT and BioBERT. The HEA BERT and BioBERT models achieved average F1-macro scores across all criteria of 0.75 and 0.74, respectively, outperforming the Random Forest model (average F1-macro = 0.69). Overall, the neural network based models achieved 81% and 86% average accuracy at 100% and 80% coverage, respectively, compared to 94% manual rating accuracy. The attention mechanism implemented in the HEA architectures not only provided ’model explainability’ by identifying reasonable supporting sentences for the documents fulfilling the Brief DISCERN criteria, but also boosted F1 performance by 0.05 compared to the same architecture without an attention mechanism. Our research suggests that it is feasible to automate online health information quality assessment, which is an important step towards empowering patients to become informed partners in the healthcare process.

BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making
Laura Kinkead
Senior Research Software Engineer

Building software tools for Data Science.