NJIT computer scientist audits government, hospital terms seeking errors

Some men seek rare antiques, others hunt wild boar. New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) computer scientist Yehoshua Perl, PhD, creates elegant logical structures to track down errant or misplaced medical terms. The errors creep into documents and databases developed by corporations, government agencies, hospitals and academic institutions that design, maintain and use terminologies throughout a variety of systems.

"People are human and, unfortunately, errors creep into these terminologies," said Perl. "It is our job as research auditors to devise techniques to help editors and terminology curators to find these errors. I like to say that an auditor 'smells' out where there might be a problem. We develop techniques to 'smell' the errors."

Perl's research is funded by a three-year $1.43-million grant from the National Library of Medicine (NLM), a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

Why bother cleaning up ambiguous and redundant categories in medical terminologies? "Many errors may never cause a problem," said Perl. "However, some will. Take penicillin. Drug manufacturers refer to it with different names. If all these titles are not fed correctly into the pharmacy information system, the computers won't consistently flag the drug as penicillin. Even worse, a doctor then might prescribe the drug, the computer won't indicate that it's a penicillin derivative and inadvertently the physician has given drug to someone allergic to it."

The NLM is responsible for auditing the Unified Medical Language System (UMLS), a terminological knowledge base of 1.3 million concepts taken from 100 specialized medical terminologies and coding systems. The NLM has been responsible for the veracity of UMLS terminology since1986.

"The NLM needs this work done because there has been much confusion in clinical information systems," said Perl. "Each professional insists on expressing something his way. Physic

Contact: Sheryl Weinstein
New Jersey Institute of Technology

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