E-health 3.0: how can the semantic web change the world of internet health information?

E-health 3.0: how can the semantic web change the world of internet health information?

Access to online health information is something most individuals take for granted these days. Whether sifting through a million Google hits or a laborious visit to WebMD, most people with access to a computer have utilized the current online health tools. Just ten years ago, few would give credence to reputable health information posted on the Web. Even fewer of us would rely on it as a primary or secondary source of medical information. Yet, recent Pew research suggests that 8 in 10 Internet users go online for health information totaling eight million health searches on a typical day. While the depth of information on the Web has increased dramatically, the ability to access the right information has floundered in comparison. Contextual data retrieval is particularly critical with health information and by most accounts the Internet is a mess in this regard. The ground breaking idea of a new search paradigm known as Semantic Web may hold the promise of a cure.

In health-related searches context takes on great importance; search results that are poor, inaccurate, or incomplete can misinform and confuse while information overload is equally problematic. Research has shown that the Internet is trusted second only to one's physician in health matters, and is often utilized as a first resource for medical information. This is especially troubling considering that the same Pew research established that 75% of individuals searching for health topics do not verify their sources. Verifying information source and quality is essential for health information considering most people start their online health search with a Google search before considering the MayoClinic or the National Institute of Health (NIH). Clearly there is a need for improved, accurate and in-depth health information retrieval online.

The traditional model of Web search engines, while satisfactory in the past, has fundamentally overstretched its capacity to aid the ordinary Internet user. The average online health search is redundant, piecemeal, and highly keyword sensitive. Health topics are myriad and are defined by complicated medical terminology. Are you searching for illness symptoms, treatment options, patient experiences, or drug interactions? Did you enter the correct medical term for your query? Which search hit should you choose? How do results even get ranked? In many ways, searching for medical information online is like sticking your hand into a grab bag. There are lots of choices, little influence on the outcome, and a high probability of being disappointed with the result. This model inevitably results in Internet users reaching back into the grab bag to find the desired result. Most people are used to this repetitive cycle of query, review, revise query, and review again. Inevitably with a complex and sensitive topic like medicine searches become complicated and difficult to refine. Internet users must ultimately rely on piecing together information from various sources of questionable veracity. The current sphere of online health information challenges both the healthcare and Web development communities to find a better way to disseminate important health information across the Internet. The answer may lie in a vision for the future of the Internet called the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web concept was envisioned by World Wide Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee as a system for connecting Web information based on the meaning and context of information. To summarize the difference between this idea and the current model, think of your current Google or Yahoo search as a popularity contest between sites that have mentioned your search keywords. Websites are ranked by search engines largely based on how frequently they are visited and updated. For the most part, the search engine does not understand how search terms may relate to the search result. In the Semantic Web model, data on the Internet contains contextual meaning so that a search can access information that you really want. Instead of merely presenting a list of websites with your keyword, the search can connect your search interest with information that is contextually related to the desired topic. The end product of a Semantic Web enabled search tool is the ability to produce a smarter Internet - one where users can actually communicate with the information on the Web instead of stumbling upon it.

Semantic Web health searches have the potential to bridge the gap in medical knowledge that exists between experts and average individuals through the use of intelligent features. Perhaps the most significant innovation ushered by the Semantic Web would be the ability to search in plain language sentences instead of medical jargon. Further, semantic search results would be contextual to the query. Thus, a search for "Heart risk for African-American men with diabetes" would produce results considering 'heart disease', 'African-American', 'men', and 'diabetes' together. Additionally, users will be able to filter results and aggregate information based on important topics such as treatment modalities, alternative therapies, clinical trials, localized clinician ratings, and a myriad of other options assembled in a central platform. A semantic health search will allow individuals to scour the Internet for health information that is truly pertinent to their unique circumstances - whether it be their age, race, sex, confluence of illnesses, or specific topical interests. Further, the health information produced by a Semantic Web search will empower the user with actionable information and resources to help users seek stay informed, understand their options, and seek proper care.

While the technology to begin utilizing Semantic Web architecture already exists, its complexity and a lack of leadership have hampered its proliferation. Part of the problem stems from a steep barrier to creation. Some areas of biomedical science have started to create the tools necessary to link pieces of data together by meaning through the creation of field specific "dictionaries" called ontologies. Ontologies, along with other semantic web development tools such as RDF, allow data to take on the added meaning necessary to make web searches intelligent. Yet, no field or specialty has fully stepped forward to push the web development community to a crucial tipping point of acceptance. Hot spots of intelligent search portals exist that utilize burgeoning forms of semantic technology - including Healia.com for consumer health and Gopubmed.com for biomedical research. By offering a superior means of filtering vast arrays of information compared to their traditional counterparts, these websites present a glimpse of what the Semantic Web might offer.

A shift to a Semantic Web search paradigm requires a particular field to expand beyond the confines of current search methodologies. Though some fields of science are taking the initiative within their niche to create Semantic Web technology, a larger movement is necessary to greater impact the Internet landscape. Yahoo's recent commitment to Semantic Web technology may spark a shift towards semantic data mining across the Web. The online health information sector has the potential to be a transformative agent in the shift from the traditional search model utilized today to one that addresses the Internet community's needs. By jumping to the forefront of Semantic Web technology, health information might become the most advanced form of accurate data sharing on the Internet. If so, we may look back at today's realm of Web health portals much the way we view the early days of the Internet in light of our current web advancements. Perhaps more importantly, this paradigm will empower the average individual to take charge of their medical care experience.

1 - Fox S. "Online Health Search 2006" Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2006

2 - Hawkes, Nigel. "More people consult Google over Health" Times Online 6 June 2005.

(//www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article530336.ece). Accessed 2/14/2008 3 - Fox S. "Online Health Search 2006" Pew Internet and American Life Project. 2006

Author: Alex Trzebucki

Biomedical Research Fellow

Healthcare Innovation and Technology Lab


How web 3.0 will change our lives? Philippe Modard at TEDxULg (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Women health