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This article is part of the supplement: Research from the Eleventh International Workshop on Network Tools and Applications in Biology (NETTAB 2011)

Open Access Research

Matching health information seekers' queries to medical terms

Lina F Soualmia12*, Elise Prieur-Gaston2, Zied Moalla2, Thierry Lecroq2 and Stéfan J Darmoni2

Author Affiliations

1 LIM & Bio EA 3969, Université Paris XIII, Sorbonne Paris Cité, 93017 Bobigny, France

2 LITIS-TIBS EA 4108 & CISMeF Rouen University Hospital, 76031 Rouen, France

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BMC Bioinformatics 2012, 13(Suppl 14):S11  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-13-S14-S11

Published: 7 September 2012

Abstract

Background

The Internet is a major source of health information but most seekers are not familiar with medical vocabularies. Hence, their searches fail due to bad query formulation. Several methods have been proposed to improve information retrieval: query expansion, syntactic and semantic techniques or knowledge-based methods. However, it would be useful to clean those queries which are misspelled. In this paper, we propose a simple yet efficient method in order to correct misspellings of queries submitted by health information seekers to a medical online search tool.

Methods

In addition to query normalizations and exact phonetic term matching, we tested two approximate string comparators: the similarity score function of Stoilos and the normalized Levenshtein edit distance. We propose here to combine them to increase the number of matched medical terms in French. We first took a sample of query logs to determine the thresholds and processing times. In the second run, at a greater scale we tested different combinations of query normalizations before or after misspelling correction with the retained thresholds in the first run.

Results

According to the total number of suggestions (around 163, the number of the first sample of queries), at a threshold comparator score of 0.3, the normalized Levenshtein edit distance gave the highest F-Measure (88.15%) and at a threshold comparator score of 0.7, the Stoilos function gave the highest F-Measure (84.31%). By combining Levenshtein and Stoilos, the highest F-Measure (80.28%) is obtained with 0.2 and 0.7 thresholds respectively. However, queries are composed by several terms that may be combination of medical terms. The process of query normalization and segmentation is thus required. The highest F-Measure (64.18%) is obtained when this process is realized before spelling-correction.

Conclusions

Despite the widely known high performance of the normalized edit distance of Levenshtein, we show in this paper that its combination with the Stoilos algorithm improved the results for misspelling correction of user queries. Accuracy is improved by combining spelling, phoneme-based information and string normalizations and segmentations into medical terms. These encouraging results have enabled the integration of this method into two projects funded by the French National Research Agency-Technologies for Health Care. The first aims to facilitate the coding process of clinical free texts contained in Electronic Health Records and discharge summaries, whereas the second aims at improving information retrieval through Electronic Health Records.