Over the four days I spent at the National Library of Medicine with five other health journalists, I didn’t see a single book until the last day. And even then, it was only during an optional tour of the building’s underground “stacks.” But of course, the NLM is no ordinary library.
During a fellowship sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists, the six of us spent most of our time in front of computer screens, learning about the library’s vast array of resources for the healthcare community, scientists, librarians, students, the media, and the general public.
The NLM, which turns 175 years old next year, houses more than 16 million records from more than 5,000 journals. More than 35 million unique individuals visit the site each year, posing more than 1 billion searches to the online literature search engine Pubmed/Medline.
But, as we learned, NLM is much more than medical literature. We received hands-on training in the use of amazingly comprehensive databases on genetics and toxicology that are designed for use by the research and clinical communities as well as the general public, along with a cool new site – still in beta – that helps consumers identify pills.
In a session on NLM’s ClinicalTrials.gov database, the site’s director Dr. Deborah Zarin spoke at length about the impact of the Food and Drug Amendments Act of 2007, which mandated trial registration and complete data reporting to Clinicaltrials.gov of all post-phase 1 interventional studies involving drugs, devices, and biologics approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The new transparency means that companies and other research entities can no longer cherry-pick their data to reflect the most favorable outcomes or simply choose not to report a study with negative findings. Had this law been in effect 10 years ago, the debacles involving suppression of trial data on COX-2 inhibitors and the diabetes drug Avandia might never have occurred. Or at least, the arguments would have been more easily settled.
“That’s how science should be. It would [have been] easier to debate if it [had been] all there in the public record,” Dr. Zarin said.
We spent two sessions learning how to mine data from PubMed.gov, a resource I use nearly every day but, as I learned, I hardly knew at all. Everything we were taught—by enthusiastic and engaging medical librarian Kathi Canese—is available in online tutorials. Users must create an account for many of the customized search features but it’s free, as is all of NLM’s content. (Our taxes pay for it.)
The fellowship was coordinated and led by NLM senior staffer Robert Logan, Ph.D., a former journalism professor. He told me, “This place really is the home of medical informatics around the world. This is also the home of computational biology…We love books, but nevertheless the folks here have realized that leadership as a great library is much more than that.”
-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)