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Why is Medical Information So Important? Case Study - Johns Hopkins

In 2001, a female volunteer took part in an ashtma study at Johns Hopkins University. During the study, she was administered a drug called hexamethonium, an inhalant. This drug led to the progressive failure of the volunteer's lungs and kidneys. When preparing to conduct the study, the supervising physician researched the adverse effects of hexamethomium on a limited number of resources, but did not find any life-threatening effects. One of the resources he searched was PubMed, but he did not search this database effectively. After an investigation into this incident, it was discovered that citations to literature found previous to 1966 did show evidence of lung damage associated with hexamethonium.

So the question arises, could a librarian have prevented this tragedy? Many sources say yes. An experienced librarian would have known that PubMed only searches citations back to 1966 when only MeSH vocabulary is used, and would have consulted the National Library of Medicine's OldMedline database to do a more comprehensive search on Medline literature prior to 1966. The librarian would have used Medline's controlled vocabulary, Medical Subject Headings (MeSH) to locate appropriate search terms. According to MeSH, hexamethonium only became a descriptor in 1995. Prior to that, it was only searchable as a supplementary chemical term. The librarian, at this point, would have known to search the term, hexamethonium, as a free-text term, or to search the broader descriptor, methonium compounds. The librarian would have also broadened the search by consulting more resources, such as toxicology databases, to see if there was any evidence of adverse effects associated with hexamethonium.

The lesson here? When we want to buy a house, we go to the experts: real estate agents. When we want financial information, we go to the experts: financial analysts. When we want information, we need to go to the experts: Librarians!

Source: Perkins, E. "John Hopkins' Tragedy: Could Librarians Have Prevented a Death?." Information Today NewsBreaks August 7, 2001.


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