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Notes from the Lab

Guardian angel comes to health care

Present health information systems are built for the convenience of health care providers and consequently yield fragmented patient records in which medically relevant lifelong information is sometimes incorrect or inaccessible.

Now MIT researchers led by Professor Peter Szolovits of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science are developing an information system centered on the individual patient instead of the provider. In this system a set of guardian angel (GA) software agents integrates all health-related concerns, including medically relevant legal and financial information about an individual. This personal system will help track, manage and interpret the subject's health history and offer advice to both patient and provider. At a minimum, the system will maintain comprehensive medical records, accessible in a timely manner as the subject moves through life, work assignments and health-care providers.

"The idea is to have a flexible architecture so that as computer technology changes, the data will be easily incorporated into any new computer system," said Professor Szolovits, who is also affiliated with the Laboratory for Computer Science. GAs will perform functions such as collecting patient data and interpreting for the subject medically relevant facts and plans. Each GA will adapt its advice based on the subject's prior experiences and stated preferences, and provide "sanity checks" on both the medical efficacy and cost-effectiveness of diagnostic conclusions and therapeutic plans.

All this will serve to improve the quality of medical decision-making, increase patient compliance and minimize medical errors. Funding is pending from the Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Source: WWW home page of the MIT Clinical Decision-Making Group of the Laboratory for Computer Science. URL: )

How plants affect the dilution of pollutants

Professor Heidi Nepf is studying how plants growing in the Aberjona watershed northwest of Boston affect the dispersion and dilution of pollutants there. Laden with arsenic and chromium, the Aberjona river passes through two wide, shallow forebays before entering the Mystic Lakes, a popular recreation area. Some parts of the forebays support a vigorous community of lily pads and other plants.

Professor Nepf and graduate student Hank Seemann, both of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, are examining how the vegetation affects, among other things, the residence time of the water in the forebays and the delivery of contaminants to the Mystic Lakes.

For example, if the vegetation sufficiently slows down the water so that it drops its load of contaminated sediment, small concentrated pockets of pollution would be deposited among the denser regions of plant. If this proves true, Dr. Nepf said, in the long run the removal of the plants should improve the flushing of contaminants in the forebays into the Mystic Lakes-which is what ultimately happens anyway-while reducing the concentrated pockets of pollution in the forebays. The work is currently sponsored by the MIT Center for Environmental Health Sciences, with pending support from the NIH. (Source: Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT)

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 1995.

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