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Can Suicide Be Predicted From Patients’ Records?

A new study demonstrates that a predictive computer model can identify patients at risk for attempting suicide from patterns in their electronic health records — an average of two years ahead of time.

Such models could potentially alert health professionals in advance of a visit, helping patients get appropriate interventions, say researchers from Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.

The findings are published in JAMA Network Open.

“Computers cannot replace care teams in identifying mental health issues. But we feel that computers, if well designed, could identify high-risk patients who may currently be falling through the cracks, unnoticed by the health system,” said Ben Reis, Ph.D., director of the Predictive Medicine Group, part of the Computational Health Informatics Program (CHIP) at Boston Children’s Hospital, and co-senior author on the paper.

“We envision a system that could tell the doctor, ‘of all your patients, these three fall into a high-risk category. Take a few extra minutes to speak with them.'”

For the study, the researchers analyzed electronic health record data from more than 3.7 million patients ages 10 to 90 across five diverse U.S. health care systems: Partners HealthCare System in Boston; Boston Medical Center; Boston Children’s Hospital; Wake Forest Medical Center in North Carolina; and University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Between 6 and 17 years’ worth of data were available from the different centers, including diagnostic codes, laboratory test results, medical procedure codes, and medications.

The records revealed a total of 39,162 suicide attempts. The models were able to detect 38 percent of them (this ranged 33 to 39 percent across the five centers) with 90 percent specificity. Cases were picked up a mean of 2.1 years before the actual suicide attempt (range, 1.3 to 3.5 years).

The strongest predictors, not surprisingly, included drug poisonings, drug dependence, acute alcohol intoxication, and several mental health conditions. But other predictors were ones that wouldn’t ordinarily come to mind, like rhabdomyolysis, cellulitis or abscess of the hand, and HIV medications.

“There wasn’t one single predictor,” says Reis. “It is more of a gestalt or balance of evidence, a general signal that builds up over time.”

The team developed the model in two steps, using a machine-learning approach. First, they showed half of their patient data to a computer model, directing it to find patterns that were associated with documented suicide attempts.

Next, they took lessons learned from that “training” exercise and validated them using the other half of their data; asking the model to predict, based on those patterns alone, which patients would eventually attempt suicide.

Overall, the model performed similarly at all five medical centers, but retraining the model at individual centers brought better results.

“We could have created one model to fit all medical centers, using the same codes,” said Yuval Barak-Corren, M.D., of CHIP, first author on the paper. “But we chose an approach that automatically builds a slightly different model, tailored to suit the specifics of each health care site.”

Suicide is now the second most common cause of death among American youth. Fatal suicides rose 30 percent between 2000 and 2016, and 2016 alone saw 1.3 million nonfatal suicide attempts.

The findings confirm the value of adapting the model to each site, since health care centers may have unique predictive factors, based on different hospital coding practices and local demographics and health patterns.

Source: Boston Children’s Hospital

Can Suicide Be Predicted From Patients’ Records?

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Can Suicide Be Predicted From Patients’ Records?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Apr 2020 (Originally: 27 Apr 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 26 Apr 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.