You Have it, But Can You SPELL It?
By Kathy Millar
about NEWMONIA? Has your physician warned you about HIPERTENSION?
Bothered by a lingering, mysterious COFF? Maybe you have it, but
just cant spell it. If thats the case, a new interactive
search mechanism built into the NIH (National Institutes of Heath)
website may be just the remedy you need.
The new medical
"spell -check" was the brainchild of Dennis Rodriguez,
an information technology specialist at NIH who, in 1991, developed
the organizations first electronic bulletin board. When NIHs
public website appeared, Rodriguez says it "became very apparent
that standard search technology was unforgiving when it came to
his web development team spent hours examining search logs and tracing
the frustration of users who attempted time and time again to gain
access to the site but whose spelling errors kept them out of the
system. Rodriguez knew that most computers had some kind of spell-check
function. The challenge for NIH was to build a component that could
interface successfully with the configuration of the larger website.
The results can be seen at http://search.nih.gov.
component Rodriguez and his team added to the NIH website is a first
in the world of electronic information sharing. While there are
medical glossaries available on the internet and medical "dictionaries"
online, a spell-check function targeting complex medical terms had
yet to be designed. When the NIH prototype appeared in February
2000, web developers and masters at NIH realized immediately that
there was no turning back.
of users are accessing NIHs medical spellchecker on a regular
basis, and developers report most of the comments received from
the public are positive. Not all the kinks, they admit, are gone.
When users key in a term phonetically, (MELLANOMMA, for instance)
a long list of similarly spelled terms can pop up -- small help
for someone without the medical expertise you need to know the difference
between a "melanoma," a "melanomata," and a
knows the spell-check mechanism isnt perfect. He says efforts
are underway to test the present system, survey users, and discover
ways of building "natural language search interfaces"
and other devices that can engage the user in an actual dialogue
and direct him or her to what is most likely to be an ideal response.
A user, for
example, might key in "pain." The computer would then
query "back pain?" or "migraine?" and depending
on user response, direct the inquirer to the most appropriate site.
"We want to refine the system," says Rodriguez, "compare
what we have to the most advanced, interactive search technology,
and decide where we want the next iteration of the medical spell-checker
to take us."
If you have
any doubts about the development of "the next generation"
of medical spell-checkers, go to the experts. They are Sandra Desautels,
the technical project leader, Harpreet Sayal, the projects
lead programmer, Anh Le, who tested the server, Eric Noriega and
Ginny Vinton, both responsible for integration of the system, and
ask them what they have planned for the future. Theyll tell
you that as good as the current model may be, tomorrows spell-checker
is going to offer even greater access to a broader population of
Soon you wont
have to be a physician, or a health practioner, or even a decent
speller to understand all too well what ails you. Type in "groans,
bones and stones," and you might just come up with a diagnosis
you can take with you to the family doctor. Who will probably be
online in his office as well.
For more information
about the NIH medical spell-checker, contact Dennis Rodriguez at
the NIH spell-checker, go to http://search.nih.gov
at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government is a writer
for Access America E-Gov E-Zine. She can be reached at K.firstname.lastname@example.org
or at 304-728-3051 ext. 255.