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Medical School Database Connects Classroom to Clinic

A unique database for medical students and other health sciences students has been developed at Tufts University to enrich teaching and learning. The database, aptly called the Health Sciences Database, recently won the Enterprise Value Award from CIO magazine. This award recognizes the merits of cutting-edge hardware or software solutions.

The Tufts HSDB is a Web-accessible multimedia collection of lecture notes, images, journal articles, course syllabi, and pedagogical tools. Its value, however, lies not just in the wealth of information stored in the database, but in the cross-disciplinary nature of the collection as well as in the way data are organized and accessed.

The HSDB had its start six years ago, when a small team of people working in Tufts' Medical School library began brainstorming ways to better provide slide images to students. Until then two sets had been kept on reserve in the library, an obviously inadequate solution, especially at exam time. The team reasoned that an image database would allow more students to access the slides they needed for certain courses. Since then, with the help of a grant from the National Library of Medicine, the HSDB has grown to encompass a vast collection of resources. From image banking, the team went on to add course syllabi for nearly the entire medical school curriculum. These syllabi, which more closely resemble textbooks than the typical undergraduate course outline, provide medical students with crucial instructional materials in a searchable, manageable format. The database also includes interactive quizzes, tutorials, and innovative teaching tools created by faculty members, as well as illustrations and images pulled in from the Web. Additionally, it now includes material from most of the other professional schools in the Health Sciences Center.

Although the HSDB is called a database, it more closely resembles a portal. Users are given a unique ID tag and enter the site through a home page that links to course syllabi for nearly every medical school course. According to Paul Wang, Chair of the Curriculum Committee for the medical school, one of the strengths of the database is its versatility. "Students can use it as an image database and to catch up on lecture material," he says, "But they also can use it to keep notes." A function built into the programming allows a user to customize a version of the database with notes. Because of the system's unique log-on capabilities, any notations a person makes in the material appear exactly as they were inserted, every time the person logs on.

Wang also points out how useful the database is in linking the first two (classroom-based) years of medical school with the last two (clinical) years. "It's a big challenge trying to bring the classroom experience and the clinic experience together," he says. "Every medical student accumulates a mountain of books and notes. It's not practical to carry that around with you during clinical rotations, and it's not searchable. The database is one solution that allows students to easily draw on the knowledge they gained in lecture." Students can simply search the database for material on a topic they're addressing in clinic. This "anytime, anywhere access," says Bruce Metz, the university's vice president of Information Technology, is a major benefit of the technology tool. Wireless access, in the planning stages, will make that even simpler.

Susan Albright, director of the HSDB, was one of the original team members. "This has been a labor of love," she says. Albright has been with the project from the beginning, when they were "talking about using Gopher and Mosaic to access the World Wide Web." Currently, the HSDB offers resources for students studying medicine, veterinary science, dentistry, public health, biomedical science, and nutrition. Albright and her team are focusing now on building out the database to include all of the material they can get from many other Health Sciences programs at Tufts. When that's done, the HSDB will offer truly cross-curricular material. The decision to make the database available to other health-related schools is a unique example of a medical school reaching out to its colleagues in parallel professional programs. Students will be able to access material from any of the programs and can search in such a way that they either sift out other programs' material or include it. For instance, a veterinary student might search for information on rabies that includes not only material on the care and treatment of animals, but also on the human impact of rabies, material that may be donated by the medical school or school of public health.

Albright's team is also adding features to the database that will allow faculty members to edit, search, and add material on an as-needed basis, giving instructors more ownership of the tool and providing a shortcut for putting new information onto the database more quickly.

The HSDB is built using MySQL, an open-source SQL relational database, and is housed in a Unix server. The fiber-optic, gigabit-ethernet, high-speed network at Tufts, powered by equipment from Foundry Networks, connects all three University campuses. The network provides significantly advanced data transmission rates enabling easy, quick access to the HSDB from all locations. Other applications supported by the HSDB include Macromedia Dreamweaver, Shockwave, and Director; Adobe Illustrator and Premier; PhotoShop; and RealNetworks. The modular, building-block nature of the database gives the administrators the confidence to open up the tool to every faculty member. Of course, Albright and the others on the team will continue to help faculty as much as necessary, both with the basics and with designing new teaching tools. These have included an interactive radiology teaching tool that uses RealServer and Flash, interactive quizzes, and digitized lectures that feature synchronized audio and slides.

For more information, contact Susan Albright, [email protected].

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