Meet the NLM Investigators: Dr. Demner-Fushman Knows the Answers to Your Questions!

Meet my close colleague, Dr. Dina Demner-Fushman! This brilliant researcher is the face behind what many of you have already accessed on NLM’s websites. Many of you will agree with me when I say that having one PhD is extremely impressive–but would you believe she has TWO?! In addition to her master’s degree, Dr. Demner-Fushman has PhDs in immunology and computer science.

Dr. Demner-Fushman and her team use advanced artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing, and data mining techniques to answer consumers’ questions about a variety of health topics. Did you know that it was Dr. Demner-Fushman’s research that led to the developmental stages of the indexing initiative that produced the current iteration of the MEDLINE resource? This work helps all of us navigate a plethora of NLM resources.

Check out the infographic below to learn more about the innovative, important research happening in Dr. Demner-Fushman’s lab.

Infographic titled: Biomedical Question Answering. The title area features a picture of Dr. Demner-Fushman along with her title and accreditations (MD, Phd): Investigator, Computational Health. The first column of the graphic explores her short and long-term goals  for her projects. The center column describes the processes she uses to achieve these goals, and the last column depicts a simple graphic illustrating a Q and A service.

What makes your team unique? Tell us more about the people working in your lab.   

It is a diverse, multicultural team. Some were even born after I got my first IT job checking computers at Hunter College for Y2K compliance. The team is united by the task of enabling computers to understand health-related information needs and the socioeconomic and professional status of people who come to NLM seeking information. It is a group of exceptionally dedicated and talented people. Our diverse backgrounds make us see all possible aspects of addressing the informational and emotional needs of our users. 

What is your advice for young scientists or people interested in pursuing a career in research?  

  • Be proactive: Seek information and take advantage of training opportunities.  
  • Be brave: Admit you don’t know or don’t understand something. Most people will try to help.  
  • Be bold: Reach out to people who you would like to work with or to discuss your ideas.  
  • Be honest.  
  • Be patient: Research implies working hard, sometimes without immediate results. Even if research is your passion and fun, sometimes you have to do things that you might not enjoy or you might fear but still have to do, like giving talks or writing paper.

What do you enjoy about working at NLM?  

The community of dedicated people across all divisions, the mission, and the intellectual freedom.  

Where are you planning to travel to this year?  

I was just in Dublin, Ireland, in May for the 60th meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics and co-chaired the BioNLP workshop for the 15th time. I loved Dublin when I visited shortly before the pandemic. I enjoyed revisiting a place I loved and discovering new things to love.

What are you reading right now?  

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. It provides an amazing view of pre-World War II Germany and political relations. I hope some lessons have been learned! 

You’ve read her words, now hear them for yourself. Follow our NLM YouTube page for more exciting content from the NLM staff that make it all possible. If you’d like to learn more about our Intramural Research Program (IRP), view job opportunities, and explore research highlights, I invite you to explore our recently redesigned NLM IRP webpage.

Transcript [Demner-Fushman]*: When people need information, what they really like is to ask a question and get a really good comprehensive answer, and to also know that the answer is true and correct.

When I started my independent clinician career, I had lots of questions, but I was sometimes not even sure if I was getting the right answer. “Question answering” is this system to understand the question, what the question is about, and why it is asked. When the answer is found, it’s usually not a single answer: It’s parts of the answer in different places. It’s multiple answers. So, all of that then needs to be condensed into one comprehensive answer with evidence of where the answer came from. So that’s the focus of my research.

On the surface, very similar questions asked by clinicians and by the public should be answered very differently. Different deep-learning systems are needed to find the answers to the same question asked by two different people.

The long-term goal is one entry point to all the NLM resources. It doesn’t matter who the person is and how they ask their question or look for information. We should be able to recognize what the person needs and provide it. There is no one—other than NLM—who is specifically dedicated to biomedical information retrieval and biomedical question answering. Although it seems industry is doing that kind of research as well, it is not their main focus, whereas we keep people focused on what really matters for health and advancing medicine.

*Transcript edited for clarity

How Being an ICU Nurse Prepared Me to be NLM Director

In mid-May, at their 2022 National Teaching Institute & Critical Care Exposition in Houston, Texas, I received a great honor from the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN): the AACN Pioneering Spirit Award. I was delighted to receive this prestigious award, which recognizes significant contributions that influence progressive and critical care nursing worldwide and relate to AACN’s values of integrity, inclusion, transformation, leadership, and relationships. I was humbled to receive this award for my work during my tenure as NLM Director, and it’s in large part due to the work that so many NLM employees do every day.

This acknowledgement from AACN is deeply meaningful to me because critical care nursing has been a part of my professional identity for almost 50 years! In 1974, while I was still in nursing school, I was assigned to work as a nursing assistant in the critical care medical unit at Lankenau Medical Center outside Philadelphia. After graduating in 1975, I became part of the nursing team in the surgical intensive care unit (ICU) at the very same hospital.

These early experiences have touched every part of my career, including my role at NLM—the epicenter for biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the largest biomedical library in the world.

Then: Learning from My Teachers and Colleagues

I learned from Kathy McCauley, cardiac-care nurse extraordinaire, about the importance of the scientific basis of nursing. Nurses’ deep knowledge of physiology, pharmacology, and anatomy enables the bedside critical care nurse to almost instantaneously recognize vital changes in a patient’s medical status and determine just the right interventions to rebalance fluid or improve oxygenation. My colleague and ICU nurse, Nora Kelly, modeled respect for patient dignity that, to this day, shapes my work to support patient self-management using effective computer technologies. Nora showed me that even in the midst of an often hectic, fast-paced ICU environment, there was always time to provide a patient with comfort, help a person into a more comfortable position, or complete basic hygiene and grooming around tubes and monitor wires.

Now: Serving as Your NLM Director

What stands out the most to me now are the lessons about the importance of in-the-moment information processing; interdisciplinary teamwork supported by nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, social workers, and others; and personal accountability that shape my everyday life as the director of NLM. Delivering high-quality care under extreme levels of uncertainty and risk is the hallmark of critical care. I learned early on that time was of the essence—there was rarely an opportunity to pause and read an article or two as one pondered how to intervene in a physiology cascade that could lead to sudden death.

The insights from these experiences taught me that for information to truly support in-the-moment care, NLM needed to make its resources open and available in machine-readable formats. It is our job to use machine-learning algorithms to make available NLM’s vast repository of biomedical and scientific literature that drives contemporary drug management or clinical guidelines interpretation. NLM invests in research that helps ICU professionals quickly interpret patient charts so they can predict the likelihood of pulmonary embolism diagnosis or track a patient’s probable health outcome trajectory using observations noted in their electronic health record.

NLM in the ICU

ICU patients in hospitals around the country are all supported by the best interprofessional teams that understand the unique aspects of patient care, whether that’s to advance the patient’s progress towards wellness or to provide alternative end-of-life care focused entirely on comfort. Because of the diversity of caregivers and professionals across hospital ICUs, we must acquire, organize, and disseminate the literature to all biomedical professional groups when they need it most.

It is in this spirit that each division in NLM—including our Library Operations team managing our NLM Collection, our MEDLINE Literature Selection Technical Review Committee to impanel experts across many specializations, and our PubMed and PubMed Central with the tools to index and catalog records—accelerates the dissemination of knowledge from many disciplines. Clinicians are required to have deep expertise and stay abreast of new research within their specialty and to recognize potentially valuable literature from other disciplines. In support of this requirement, we organize over 34 million citations by clinical problem and physiological underpinning. That way, no matter what your specialty, each search identifies literature from a wide range of perspectives and refines our “relevance-based results return” according to those patterns most valued by our patrons, as described by NLM’s Best Match algorithm.

Patients often find themselves in the ICU from somewhere else in the health care system and are frequently discharged not to their homes, but to other less-intensive clinical care units. To understand their conditions and efficiently guide their care in a vast, complex, and time-sensitive setting, health care interprofessional teams should understand all ICU clinical information and events so they can translate and transmit that information to the responsible post-discharge teams. This information flow relies on health data standards so that events that occur in one place are well understood in the next. NLM plays an important role by forecasting how health care settings like ICUs will use health data standards to promote interoperability and by shaping the public policies that protect patient records. NLM shares its expertise in data science, health information technologies, and computer science with our fellow federal agencies and with the private sector to make sure patient records are accessible while remaining private and secure.

Connecting the Dots

I remember the enormous intimacy involved in my ICU nursing experience, often including myself and a patient, at times the patient’s family, and certainly every time the rest of the care team. But teamwork only works when each member holds sacred their responsibility to the patient and the care that they require. Personal accountability does not occur in a vacuum; rather, it is molded and shaped through conversations with colleagues, collaborative care-planning rounds, candid postmortem reviews, and quiet heart-to-hearts in the staff lounge. Even these efforts are touched by NLM, from providing literature and guidelines that lay out the various roles of professionals to furnishing our citations repository with the contact information of those authors whose work guides clinical thinking. In this way, NLM becomes a partner for personal accountability.

If only that fledgling ICU nurse from 50 years ago knew that her entire cultural and practical experience was preparing her to direct the most important health science library in the world! Because of who she was as that nurse and who we are as NLM, critical care remains a cornerstone of health care information and systems in best support of all patients. If you have ideas for how NLM can better support the critical care of YOUR patients, please let us know!

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