15 Jan 2012

Shifting the paradigm from search engines to answer engines

TRIP database is one of my favourite resources for healthcare information, largely because it makes things so easy for the user (specialty filters which focus results quickly, automatically adding synonyms to search queries etc.), and also because I really like their pragmatic approach to evidence-based practice – they know the needs of users working in the sector. They invariably centre the design and innovation of their databases on what clinicians need and want rather than some abstract or idealised concept of perfecting the ‘search’ process.

Most people have come across Roy Tennant’s famous quote: “librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find”. Do librarians like searching? Personally I prefer finding what I need quickly, but focussing on the second aspect it’s certainly true that most people just want to find an answer to a question or a piece of information as quickly as possible.

This is particularly true in the case of clinical queries in the health care sector, and essentially what makes secondary evidence products like UpToDate, DynaMed and Clinical Evidence so popular; by summarising and synthesising the primary research for the user it eliminates trawling through lists of search results (search for ‘urinary catheter infection’ and the chances are the first result will give you what you need) and packages the key information and references you need in a single web page. Sure it may not be perfection, or a good tool for researching conditions in depth, but in the busy world of hospital medicine it is a pragmatic and useful solution on the wards.

TRIP knows this all too well: Most of the time, doctors want answers. Quickly. Their latest project is building an ‘answer engine’:
“...Search is not something that works for most clinicians. It's a paradigm, defined by Google and people seem happy to settle for it. Is it any wonder that clinician's main source of answers to their questions is to ask a colleague? One obvious reason that clinicians ask other clinicians (but there are clearly others) is that they get an answer - not 10-20 links that may answer their question. So, to me, any solution is to go back to first principles - in this case a clinician with a clinical question. What do they want? An answer.”
A great and ambitious project, and if TRIP manage to get it right could have a big impact on evidence-based practice.


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