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Department of Medicine

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Artificial Intelligence and Robotics | Databases and Information Systems | Health Information Technology | Library and Information Science


BACKGROUND: The bidirectional encoder representations from transformers (BERT) model has achieved great success in many natural language processing (NLP) tasks, such as named entity recognition and question answering. However, little prior work has explored this model to be used for an important task in the biomedical and clinical domains, namely entity normalization.

OBJECTIVE: We aim to investigate the effectiveness of BERT-based models for biomedical or clinical entity normalization. In addition, our second objective is to investigate whether the domains of training data influence the performances of BERT-based models as well as the degree of influence.

METHODS: Our data was comprised of 1.5 million unlabeled electronic health record (EHR) notes. We first fine-tuned BioBERT on this large collection of unlabeled EHR notes. This generated our BERT-based model trained using 1.5 million electronic health record notes (EhrBERT). We then further fine-tuned EhrBERT, BioBERT, and BERT on three annotated corpora for biomedical and clinical entity normalization: the Medication, Indication, and Adverse Drug Events (MADE) 1.0 corpus, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) disease corpus, and the Chemical-Disease Relations (CDR) corpus. We compared our models with two state-of-the-art normalization systems, namely MetaMap and disease name normalization (DNorm).

RESULTS: EhrBERT achieved 40.95% F1 in the MADE 1.0 corpus for mapping named entities to the Medical Dictionary for Regulatory Activities and the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine-Clinical Terms (SNOMED-CT), which have about 380,000 terms. In this corpus, EhrBERT outperformed MetaMap by 2.36% in F1. For the NCBI disease corpus and CDR corpus, EhrBERT also outperformed DNorm by improving the F1 scores from 88.37% and 89.92% to 90.35% and 93.82%, respectively. Compared with BioBERT and BERT, EhrBERT outperformed them on the MADE 1.0 corpus and the CDR corpus.

CONCLUSIONS: Our work shows that BERT-based models have achieved state-of-the-art performance for biomedical and clinical entity normalization. BERT-based models can be readily fine-tuned to normalize any kind of named entities.


BERT, deep learning, electronic health record note, entity normalization, natural language processing

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© Fei Li, Yonghao Jin, Weisong Liu, Bhanu Pratap Singh Rawat, Pengshan Cai, Hong Yu. Originally published in JMIR Medical Informatics (, 09.09.2019. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in JMIR Medical Informatics, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

DOI of Published Version



JMIR Med Inform. 2019 Sep 12;7(3):e14830. doi: 10.2196/14830. Link to article on publisher's site

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JMIR medical informatics

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.