Documentation of screening for firearm access by healthcare providers in the veterans healthcare system: A retrospective study

Cynthia A. Brandt*, T. Elizabeth Workman, Melissa M. Farmer, Kathleen M. Akgün, Erica A. Abel, Melissa Skanderson, Bevanne Bean-Mayberry, Qing Zeng-Treitler, Maryann Mason, Lori A. Bastian, Joseph L. Goulet, Lori A. Post

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Introduction: Presence of a firearm is associated with increased risk of violence and suicide. United States military veterans are at disproportionate risk of suicide. Routine healthcare provider screening of firearm access may prompt counseling on safe storage and handling of firearms. The objective of this study was to determine the frequency with which Veterans Health Administration (VHA) healthcare providers document firearm access in electronic health record (EHR) clinical notes, and whether this varied by patient characteristics. Methods: The study sample is a post-9-11 cohort of veterans in their first year of VHA care, with at least one outpatient care visit between 2012-2017 (N = 762,953). Demographic data, veteran military service characteristics, and clinical comorbidities were obtained from VHA EHR. We extracted clinical notes for outpatient visits to primary, urgent, or emergency clinics (total 105,316,004). Natural language processing and machine learning (ML) approaches were used to identify documentation of firearm access. A taxonomy of firearm terms was identified and manually annotated with text anchored by these terms, and then trained the ML algorithm. The random-forest algorithm achieved 81.9% accuracy in identifying documentation of firearm access. Results: The proportion of patients with EHR-documented access to one or more firearms during their first year of care in the VHA was relatively low and varied by patient characteristics. Men had significantly higher documentation of firearms than women (9.8% vs 7.1%; P < .001) and veterans >50 years old had the lowest (6.5%). Among veterans with any firearm term present, only 24.4% were classified as positive for access to a firearm (24.7% of men and 20.9% of women). Conclusion: Natural language processing can identify documentation of access to firearms in clinical notes with acceptable accuracy, but there is a need for investigation into facilitators and barriers for providers and veterans to improve a systemwide process of firearm access screening. Screening, regardless of race/ ethnicity, gender, and age, provides additional opportunities to protect veterans from self-harm and violence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)525-532
Number of pages8
JournalWestern Journal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine


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