Medical Search: A Long Road to Travel

April 13, 2015

Do you want a way to search medical information without false drops, the need to learn specialized vocabularies, and sidestep Boolean? Apparently the purveyors of medical search systems have left a user scratch without an antihistamine within reach.

Navigate to Slideshare (yep, LinkedIn) and flip through “Current Advances to Bridge the Usability Expressivity Gap in biomedical Semantic Search.” Before reading the 51 slide deck, you may want to refresh yourself with Quertle, PubMed, MedNar, or one of the other splendiferous medical information resources for researchers.

The slide deck identifies the problems with the existing search approaches. I can relate to these points. For example, those who tout question answering systems ignore the difficulty of passing a question from medicine to a domain consisting of math content. With math the plumbing in many advanced medical processes, the weakness is a bit of a problem and has been for decades.

The “fix” is semantic search. Well, that’s the theory. I interpreted the slide deck as communicating how a medical search system called ReVeaLD would crack this somewhat difficult nut. As an aside: I don’t like the wonky spelling that some researchers and marketers are foisting on the unsuspecting.

I admit that I am skeptical about many NGIA or next generation information access systems. One reason medical research works as well as it does is its body of generally standardized controlled term words. Learn MeSH and you have a fighting chance of figuring out if the drug the doctor prescribed is going to kill off your liver as it remediates your indigestion. Controlled vocabularies in scientific, technology, engineering, and medical domains address the annoying ambiguity problems encounter when one mixes colloquial words with quasi consultant speak. A technical buzzword is part of a technical education. It works, maybe not too well, but it works better than some of the wild and crazy systems which I have explored over the years.

You will have to dig through old jargon and new jargon such as entity reconciliation. In the law enforcement and intelligence fields, an entity from one language has to be “reconciled” with versions of the “entity” in other languages and from other domains. The technology is easier to market than make work. The ReVeaLD system is making progress as I understand the information in the slide deck.

Like other advanced information access systems, ReVeaLD has a fair number of moving parts. Here’s the diagram from Slide 27 in the deck:


There is also a video available at this link. The video explains that Granatum Project uses a constrained domain specific language. So much for cross domain queries, gentle reader. What is interesting to me is the similarity between the ReVeaLD system and some of the cyber OSINT next generation information access systems profiled in my new monograph. There is a visual query builder, a browser for structured data, visualization, and a number of other bells and whistles.

Several observations:

  • Finding relevant technical information requires effort. NGIA systems also require the user to exert effort. Finding the specific information required to solve a time critical problem remains a hurdle for broader deployment of some systems and methods.
  • The computational load for sophisticated content processing is significant. The ReVeaLD system is likely to such up its share of machine resources.
  • Maintaining a system with many moving parts when deployed outside of a research demonstration presents another series of technical challenges.

I am encouraged, but I want to make certain that my one or two readers understand this point: Demos and marketing are much easier to roll out than a hardened, commercial system. Just as the EC’s Promise program, ReVeaLD may have to communicate its achievements to the outside world. A long road must be followed before this particular NGIA system becomes available in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky.

Stephen E Arnold, April 13, 2015


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