Advancing Healthcare: National Library of Medicine Partners with Toronto’s Ask The Doctor

Researchers at The National Library of Medicine have teamed up with Toronto web startup Ask The Doctor in a “significant step” toward developing intelligent, computerized medical assistants for doctors. The question being asked is, can computers interpret the tone and meaning of questions phrased by online patients accurately enough to become full-time assistants to professional healthcare providers?

Over the past few years, Ask The Doctor has built a database of 200,000 unanswered medical questions—supplied directly from users, and therefore phrased in conversational language and non-scripted. This criteria makes them an ideal test for the ability of computers to communicate in the real world.

“We are using artificial intelligence techniques to explore the potential of computers to understand and respond to questions asked by consumers about their health,” said Dr. Milton Corn, National Institute of Health Deputy Director. “The material provided by is particularly valuable to us in our computational research because the patient questions are stated in the exact language as typed by users.”

Beyond questions, the next step will be answers. Over 10,000 of the 200,000 questions on have been carefully answered by a team of physicians. These answers are the backbone of knowledge that millions of visitors turn to for help each year, and could also be the starting point for medical super computers.

“Imagine the amount of time physicians could save if they could ask a computer assistant a question and receive an instant and accurate response,” says Dr. Suneel Sharman, co-founder. “Currently, physicians spend a great deal of time searching in medical books and online while seeing a patient, to help them with their diagnosis. An intelligent computer that understands the language of patients and physicians would be a valuable asset for any doctor.

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