The Newsleter of the Association of Library & Information Science Students (ALISS)

The Silverfish is published monthly by the students of the Information School at the University of Washington.

The Logo of the University of Washington Information School

About The Silverfish
Current Issue
Editorial Board
Information for Authors

Book seal.

Directed Fieldwork on the PrimeAnswers Project
By Drexie Malone
September 21, 2002

Summer of 2002 was the first time I was gainfully employed as an information science student. I was able to use my nursing background on a wonderful project at the University of Washington Health Sciences Library called PrimeAnswers (PA). The Deputy Director of the HSL, Deborah Ketchell, and her website team had created an electronic portal to evidence-based medical information for University of Washington Primary Care Physicians.

The PA team includes two medical librarians and one computer specialist. Student assistants complete the team for both library and technology needs. In spring 2002, the team was looking for an indexing student assistant. When I saw the request through the iSchool email, I applied for the position. Although I did not have one of the qualifications for which they were looking, "experience in indexing semantic relations," I did have another, "background in health-related terminology." I secured the job and then applied for Directed Field Work (DFW) credits. It was a backwards approach, but the position certainly met DFW criteria and was a working example of melding information science, medicine, and technology.

PrimeAnswers supports the current model of evidence-based medicine. Physicians collect clinical evidence through the physical exam, patient history and diagnostic tests. In confirming the diagnosis, physicians also review external evidence or randomized trials. Searching the literature for systematic research is very difficult because of the sheer volume of current clinical literature. The PrimeAnswers Web site was designed to make research evidence available at the physician's fingertips, or "the best evidence at the point of care."

The PA website includes direct links to physician-preferred medical information sites such as a drug information site (Micromedex) and medical question and answer sites (UpToDate and MD Consult.) It also provides direct access to articles from evidence-based medical journals on pertinent medical topics or review articles on evidence-based studies. Another category on the website is Common Conditions, a collection of frequently-encountered conditions with brief but pertinent information about them.

When I began the job in April of 2002, the website had been online for less than a year. Many projects were still to be completed, so I got to see projects develop. One of the most interesting projects was the creation of a controlled vocabulary and thesaurus. Up to this point, searches on the website had been carried out by keyword searching. I watched the process of deciding whether to choose a commercial vendor environment for the thesaurus or build our own. The resulting decision to build our own was based on the expense of commercial products and the ability of the team computer specialist to build a database "from scratch."

I began to see what the terms Semantic Network, Modifiers, Categories, Controlled Terms, and Preferred Terms meant when used in a medical thesaurus environment. After the electronic data entry forms were created, the librarian team members populated the thesaurus with pertinent terms from the database. The stabilizing factor for placing terms in the thesaurus was connecting each term to its counterpart term in the nationally-recognized medical vocabulary called Unified Medical Language System (UMLS). Each term was connected to a UMLS code number. Although medical terminology should be standard, there are many preferences and differences nationwide and worldwide. When the UMLS term did not match our purposes, the team could apply a preferred term.

One of the most interesting moments in website and thesaurus development came when the librarians realized the fledgling thesaurus was not functioning the way it was intended. A search for a certain term had to retrieve the designated preferred term, either the UMLS term or the PA preferred term. For example, a search for MI should return the term Myocardial Infarction. Instead, synonymous terms were randomly returned. In order to build this feature correctly, the head of the project had to be able to speak both librarian and computer languages. This was, luckily, the case.

My work on the PA website involved indexing documents, mapping some of the more confusing indexing systems on the database, and learning to make changes to the public site by manipulating the administration tools "from the backend."

But what I really learned was how a project like this meets the definition of Bio-Informatics, the newest melding of medicine and technology. It was great to see how a librarian had created the fusion of the two disciplines.

Submissions Requested

Are you interested in sharing your knowledge with the rest of the student body? Have you attended any conferences or taken an interesting or worthwhile class outside of the department? Would you care to review nearby bars for us? Send your Silverfish submissions to

Edited by Michael Harkovitch

Silverfish Web Design by John W.N. Buell