Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Can the HCLSIG treat the no-computer virus?

Earlier I wrote about the Semantic Web for Health Care and Life Sciences Interest Group (HCLSIG) and an article in the economist that identified "interoperability" between the IT systems of health care providers as the main cure for the "no computer virus" that plagues the health care sector, costing us billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives each year.

We all know that the Semantic Web is about interoperability - so is the HCLSIG the cure for the no-computer virus?
I don't think so. It really isn't technology that is the problem, the technology to make the IT systems of health care providers interoperable has been around for a while. Running pilots of such systems (such as the city wide network in Santa Barbara) are testiment to that. The challenges are more in the area of economy (who pays for these solution?), privacy and coordination (in order to be interoperable everybody has to agree to some standards, or somebody has to impose them - no wunder the centralised British NHS takes a lead role in building such a network).

This should't mean that I don't like the idea of applying Semantic Web ideas to the health care sector! I do! There is a tremendous amount of medical literature and Semantic Web ideas could help to use them better. Drugs, the human anatomy or diseases are prime candidates of well structured domains that are just waiting to be formalized in ontologies, greatly increasing retrieval of research literature (especially multi-language) and lowering the cost of building (world wide interoperable) medical software. Semantic Web technologies may even one day aid the effort of building diagnostic expert systems. Expert systems that would need to be build by thousands of different peoples (distributed, not complete centralised control) and that would reflect that ever changing and sometimes conflicting state of medical research.

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