Medical Dictionaries in the 21st Century
A paradigm shift
The death knell has sounded on paper-based information products…from encyclopedias to phone directories, all are headed towards extinction. After 244 years of continuous production, in 2012, the venerated Encyclopedia Britannica ended its print run and repurposed itself as a purveyor of online information.
It wasn’t the first casualty of the internet…it won’t be the last.
Dictionaries are also evolving
But the changes wrought by the Internet are not merely that of presentation format (paper versus electronic), but the type, quality and amount of information we now expect from information products, not to mention the format of the material itself (i.e., text vs database).
Unlike hard copy (paper) information, which must play a balancing act between typeface size/volume of text and the cost of printing, shipping and warehousing, e-products are only limited by the end user’s needs; the plummeting costs of electronic memory have reduced the price of storing massive volumes of data to mere pennies.
Today’s medical dictionaries first appeared in the 20th century*. Despite producing new editions in 5 year cycles, they are increasingly out of touch with the needs of end users at all levels of sophistication, from lay person and student to scientist and specialist.
*Dorland’s Medical Dictionary in 1900; Stedman’s Medical Dictionary in 1911; Taber’s Medical Dictionary in 1940
Criticisms of current medical dictionaries:
• Definitions are too brief to be of real use
• Few definitions are written at the education level of scientists, physicians and other health professionals
• Paucity of new terms
• Definitions may be dated…sometimes by decades
• Old names–especially based on classic Latin and Greek–are retained
• Information is difficult to retrieve from the electronic (e-Book) versions of these works
• Lack of peer-reviewed references–e.g., Genecards, OMIM catalog, uniprot.org
• Many entries are not in alphabetical order–e. g.,
– Iron–deficiency anaemia is found under “A”
– Congestive heart failure is found under “F”,
– Epstein-Barr virus is found under “V”.
• These works often waste precious space with pronunciation guidelines, which non-native speakers of English either don’t understand or clearly ignore.
In 1984 I started collecting material as a resident (registrar) in pathology for a project which was first published in 1992 with a mere 12,000 terms, addressing the above criticisms. That project grew over the years. The Dictionary of Modern Medicine‘s last paper edition appeared in 2006 with McGraw-Hill, with 23,000 terms.
The Modern Medical Dictionary database’s Hows and Whys are largely answered at the following link: