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OK, You Have it, But Can You SPELL It?

By Kathy Millar

Need information about NEWMONIA? Has your physician warned you about HIPERTENSION? Bothered by a lingering, mysterious COFF? Maybe you have it, but just can’t spell it. If that’s 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 organization’s first electronic bulletin board. When NIH’s public website appeared, Rodriguez says it "became very apparent that standard search technology was unforgiving when it came to spelling errors."

Rodriguez and 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

The spell-check 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.

Today, hundreds of users are accessing NIH’s 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 "melanism."

Dennis Rodriguez knows the spell-check mechanism isn’t 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 project’s 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. They’ll tell you that as good as the current model may be, tomorrow’s spell-checker is going to offer even greater access to a broader population of users.

Soon you won’t 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

For more information about the NIH medical spell-checker, contact Dennis Rodriguez at

To access the NIH spell-checker, go to

About the Author

Kathy Millar at the National Partnership for Reinventing Government is a writer for Access America E-Gov E-Zine. She can be reached at or at 304-728-3051 ext. 255.