JEREMY BENTLEY, chief executive of technology consultancy, Smartlogic, explains why healthcare providers need to enable patients to find online help using everyday language
IN MOST situations, to properly communicate and understand information we need to be able to put what we are hearing or reading into context. This is especially true in healthcare, where patients and medical professionals can use considerably different terms to describe health conditions, symptoms and characteristics.
This issue becomes particularly important at the first point of contact for many healthcare organisations: their online portal, where one key task can be to provide an effective information interface between the public and the provider.
The online portal has become a critical part of the patient experience and a key source of information that provides improved interaction with the healthcare provider and greater user satisfaction while lowering costs
The trouble for many healthcare providers is that the words patients use to describe their health problems may not be understood in a medical context. What’s more, the sort of information the user is attempting to find may not be sufficiently labelled when it is stored electronically, which makes it difficult to provide an organised result in context to the subject that the user is interested in. Thus ‘findability’ becomes a real issue when patients search a health organisation’s public information system, which might tap into a range of documents from various sources - internally produced patient literature and articles, leaflets from related charities, studies from educational institutions and private labs, government reports, journals, medical blogs, conference papers and other content. The key documents may be buried in a huge number of search results and offering important related pieces of information is simply not possible.
An online portal only works as an alternative to phone-based or face-to-face service if patients can quickly and easily find the information they are looking for and can be confident they have all the necessary facts. To achieve this level of ‘findability’ and gain user confidence, an organisation needs to take its information retrieval platform beyond typical search.
Conventional search engines take the terms inputted and scan the entire index for these exact words. For it to work, a searcher’s understanding and use of these terms has to line up precisely with that of the author of the particular document that contains the information being sought. This could be extremely problematic for patients looking up symptoms, problems and conditions in their own normal, everyday language and without knowing the correct technical terms or medical jargon.
To move beyond this basic level of search and provide a more precise information retrieval tool, a healthcare portal needs to apply the principles of ‘semantic search’, which seeks to address searchers’ intent and the contextual meaning of the terms they are using. By adding semantic search capability, a provider can greatly enhance the ‘findability’ of information vital to retrieving the right information on a range of health and medical conditions and gaining a better understanding of symptoms and treatment options.
By adding semantic search capability, a provider can greatly enhance the ‘findability’ of information vital to retrieving the right information on a range of health and medical conditions and gaining a better understanding of symptoms and treatment options
To develop this semantic user experience for a healthcare website, an organisation should consider building or acquiring an ontology, a semantic model linking a vocabulary of medical terms with the normal language people use to describe their health, their physical condition, illnesses, specific symptoms, treatments and medications. The semantic model also enables a search that recognises the significance of keywords in certain contexts, for instance, MS meaning multiple sclerosis rather than Microsoft or Marks and Spencer. The ontology also embraces contextual relationships between symptoms and complaints, such as headache and meningitis.
The ontology is employed to implement automatic content classification, essential because the manual labelling, or tagging, of documents within most content management systems is manually applied, making it inconsistent and costly, and often non-existent. Human error crops up and various groups, departments and individuals within an organisation may each have their own different methodology and standards for meta-tagging. All this makes an automatic tagging solution crucial in enabling an effective and consistent ‘find’ experience. Software for providing automatic tagging scans each document, intelligently recognises its key terms from the ontology and tags the content with the right ‘labels’ for later retrieval during a search.
An online portal only works as an alternative to phone-based or face-to-face service if patients can quickly and easily find the information they are looking for and can be confident that they have all the necessary facts
This sort of advanced content classification system ensures all the information on a website is automatically tagged with accurate, standardised and consistent labels – metadata – so that when a patient goes to an online health portal and searches for information relating to an illness, a general health condition, a treatment or some other piece of medical information, that person will receive only relevant, topical information in the correct context.
The UK’s NHS has already developed a semantic platform to enable patients to tap into its services online. Its portal, NHS Choices, had more than 100 million visits over a 12-month period, the NHS reported last November, while a study from Imperial College London found a third of those logging onto www.nhs.uk decided against seeing a doctor afterwards, saving the NHS an estimated £44m in costs.
The online portal has become a critical part of the patient experience and a key source of information that provides improved interaction with the healthcare provider and greater user satisfaction while lowering costs.