Searches for Clinical Trials: We Can Do Better!

26 January

Clinical trials are popular targets of searches in medical journals. To deliver accurate search and browse results for them, semantic tagging and a semantic search engine are essential.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240"]Location of Jupiter in Palm Beach County, Florida Location of Jupiter in Palm Beach County, Florida (image via Wikipedia)[/caption]

The names of clinical trials are often long and unwieldy, as they try to describe the focus and mission of the trial in their name—for example, a clinical trial studying drug treatment of high cholesterol is “Arterial Biology for the Investigation of the Treatment Effects of Reducing Cholesterol 6–HDL and LDL Treatment Strategies.” Because of these long names, trials are more commonly known by their acronyms—in this case, “ARBITER 6–HALTS” trial—and no doubt their full names are being crafted to result in a catchy or apropos—or hopeful—acronym. For example, the acronym for the trial studying the effect of the drug Vytorin on cholesterol levels is “IMPROVE-IT.” (See this blogpost for some humorous trial names and acronyms.)

One of my pet peeves is the incorrect use of the word “acronym” to mean any abbreviation for a term. Actually an abbreviation is also an acronym only when the abbreviation spells a word or is a combination of letters that people can pronounce as a word. So yes—abbreviations of clinical trials are acronyms, and ah, there’s the rub for commonly used full-text nonsemantic search engines. A full-text search engine treats them like any other word.

So yikes—a PubMed search for “JUPITER” (the acronym for the trial “Justification for the Use of Statins in Prevention: an Intervention Trial Evaluating Rosuvastatin”) delivers the first two results correctly, but the third result appears because the name of the institution that issued the paper is in Jupiter, Florida! OK so yes—the PubMed search box tries to help you by suggesting “Jupiter trial” (98 results) … but it also suggests “Jupiter study” (257 results). People—the JUPITER trial and the JUPITER study are exactly the same thing to any searcher wanting to know about JUPITER. The number of results should be the same for both searches. And nobody searching PubMed for JUPITER wants to know more about Jupiter, Florida. Trust me.

We can do better. At Silverchair, our Cortex taxonomy contains a list of clinical trials and the accompanying thesaurus includes their acronyms, so when our tagging and retrieval systems encounter those concepts, we’re able to separate them from their normal English language counterparts and tag them correctly.  Yet another benefit of an automated tagging system supported by a robust and up-to-date medical thesaurus. It understands medical information and the health care professionals who depend on it so that we can give them results, not guesses.

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