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IEEE Trans Inf Technol Biomed. 1998 Dec;2(4):229-42.

Reconciling users' needs and formal requirements: issues in developing a reusable ontology for medicine.

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Department of Computer Science, University of Manchester, U.K.


A common language, or terminology, for representing what clinicians have said and done is an important requirement for individual clinical systems, and it is a pre-requisite for integrating disparate applications in a distributed telematic healthcare environment. Formal representations based on description logics or closely related formalisms are increasingly used for representing medical terminologies. GALEN's experience in using one such formalism raises two major issues, as follows: how to make ontologies based on description logics easy to use and understand for both clinicians and applications developers; what features are required of the ontology and description logic if they are to achieve their aims. Based on our experience we put forward four contentions: two relating to each of these two issues, as follows: that natural language generation is essential to make a description logic based ontology accessible to users; that the description logic based ontology should be treated as an "assembly language" and accessed via "intermediate representations" oriented to users and "perspectives" adapting it to specific applications; that independence and reuse are best supported by partitioning the subsumption hierarchy of elementary concepts into orthogonal taxonomies, each of which forms a pure tree in which the branches at each level are disjoint but nonexhaustive subconcepts of the parent concept; that the expressivity of the description logic must include support for transitive relations despite the computational cost, and that this computational cost is acceptable in practice. The authors argue that these features will be necessary, though by no means sufficient, for the development of any large reusable ontology for medicine.

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