September 3, 2004

KnowledgeMap makes medical searches a less daunting task

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Third-year medical student Tracey Wilkinson looks up a recent class lecture on Vanderbilt KnowledgeMap. Photo by Dana Johnson

KnowledgeMap makes medical searches a less daunting task

In the past, looking up information on a medical concept could take a student hours of searching through old class notes and textbooks and scouring through medical Web sites. Vanderbilt’s new Web-based database, KnowledgeMap, is making the process much easier.

The database includes documents created by medical school teachers for their classes (e.g. handouts, PowerPoint slides, and web links) in a searchable format. Users are able to type in a concept and quickly discover where it is covered throughout the medical school curriculum, and subsequently view those documents in which the concept is discussed.

“It is common now [among medical schools] to display curriculum for students on the Web,” said Anderson Spickard III, M.D., assistant professor of Medicine and Biomedical Informatics and a Master Clinical Teacher. “It is innovative to have those documents in a database that allows users to search across them and find what they need. The advance that KnowledgeMap brings is a concept-identifier, or search tool, that allows users to put in any phrase or word and find the concepts that are related to that search question displayed instantly across the curriculum.”

KnowledgeMap was introduced as a pilot project two years ago, and this year it has been approved by the Academic Program Committee as a tool recommend for all courses to use. Currently, 70 percent of first- and second-year courses have their documents available in the database. Although the clinical years are less defined by lectures and documents, clerkship directors are working to get their core lecture materials uploaded, as well.

“This will be helpful for the first- and second-year students to see how concepts they’re being exposed to will be covered in their clerkships,” Spickard said.

Third-year student Tracey Wilkinson said KnowledgeMap benefits students at every level.

“Being a third-year medical student, KnowledgeMap is a great way to use our class lecture from the first two years as a resource when on the wards,” Wilkinson said. “As a first- and second-year [student], the flexibility of having all our lectures online was wonderful…knowing that we could always reference the lecture notes if needed enabled us to pay attention to the lecture in class, as opposed to struggling to take notes.”

Faculty have also benefited from the tool, as they can navigate across the curriculum to see how a concept they are teaching is covered in other courses.

“They may be able to bring new aspects to bear about that concept or reinforce concepts that have already been taught,” Spickard explained. “They may team up with another faculty member who is teaching a similar topic and decide how to coordinate coverage of that topic.”

Administrators are also able to use KnowledgeMap to learn what is being taught, to detect any gaps or overlaps in the curriculum.

What makes KnowledgeMap such a powerful tool is its unique and robust search function. KnowledgeMap has a “concept indexer” which looks at words as parts, of a concept instead of individuals words, so that two different synonyms are interpreted as the same concept. It also understands elementary sentence structures, called natural language processing, and parts of speech to identify the concepts in a sentence.

“This means the user can type in ‘lungs became congested’ and KnowledgeMap will identify that this is the same as ‘pulmonary congestion,’” said Josh Denny, M.D., a second-year resident in Internal Medicine and co-creator of KnowledgeMap. “You could also enter CHF, which has three or more meanings, and it will use the words around the acronym in the sentence to determine and distinguish its different usages. KnowledgeMap uses other words and concepts to figure out ambiguous terms.”

The Web-based tool can also identify broad concepts, such as “genetics.” After a user enters “genetics,” Knowledge map constructs a large list of sub-concepts the user can choose from, such as “chromosome,” “point mutation,” “phenotype,” and more. The search will yield documents that contain information that falls under the concept of genetics, even if the word “genetics” doesn’t actually appear in the text.

Despite the complexity of the tool itself, Denny said it is easy to use.

“We wanted to create something that faculty and students would actually want to use,” he said. To make course materials available online, faculty members upload the presentations or documents into the database using a KnowledgeMap Web application. The process is as easy as sending an attachment via e-mail.

On the user side, the ability to conduct a thorough search that only yields relevant documents, as well as the option to quickly narrow or broaden results, makes the process much easier than using a typical search engine.

“We already have had over a million site visits, and a couple thousand documents online,” Denny said. “And we have found that people use it in different ways; it’s been helpful to all levels of the medical school.”

Spickard said the goal is to expand KnowledgeMap in the future to include the electronic medical records generated by students.

“There’s a growing movement in medicine for students to document and reflect on what they are learning in their clinical experiences,” he said.

As students type daily notes on patients, these will be automatically stored in a Web repository called a Learning Portfolio, and later they could perform a search to see where they’ve encountered a concept throughout their clerkship experience. When looking at a patient in StarPanel, they will automatically be able to view their lecture notes related to that patient’s diseases.

Concept-indexing these notes will allow for an automatic log of all the concepts students have covered in their evaluation and management of patients on the wards and in the clinic. Students will be expected to monitor their own progress and reflect on what they are learning. In addition, the Master Clinical Teachers program would bring in the human component, as each teacher would be assigned to follow a group of students.

“We continue to think that teachers are our best asset, and in keeping with this attitude, we’re developing products to capture what teachers are doing,” Spickard said.