NCI to upgrade site for easier navigation

With more people looking to its World Wide Web site for information, the National Cancer Institute plans to spend up to $5 million over the next two years to make it easier for visitors to navigate its vast array of information about cancer research and treatment.

NCI, part of the National Institutes of Health, serves numerous constituencies, from scientists researching cures to doctors looking for treatments and patients trying to understand the disease. In the past few years, more and more people have been getting those types of information from NCI's Web site.

But with some 50,000 documents about the disease, research and new drug trials being made available on the site, it is not always easy for people to find what they need, said Robert Stephens, NCI's Webmaster.

"We're flattening the site by creating a few top home page categories" rather than the 15 that greet visitors now, Stephens said. "Then we're cross-referencing everything, so it's impossible to make a wrong move." He said patients, doctors and researchers looking for grant information would be able to find it more easily.

"If you are diagnosed as a cancer patient and you want to know what your options are [for new drug trials] in your locality, you should be able to come into our system and find out what's available in your community," said Paul Van Nevel, associate director for cancer communications at NCI. "You can do it now, but you have to wade through a lot of information that you're not interested in."

The agency plans to make navigating easier by using StoryServer, a content management software package by Vignette Corp., Austin, Texas, that was first used by newspapers and magazines for Web publishing. Stephens said NCI chose the software because it provides "a transparent front end" to several databases and makes it easy for nonprogrammers to add new information to the back end of the site.

But at the heart of the site will be a feature that will let NCI profile its visitors, so people looking for information about breast cancer, for example, will not have to sift through other information to find it. The software accomplishes this with a "matching agent," which connects visitors' clicks with pages in the database that are related to information they have already seen, said Erik Josowitz, vice president of product marketing with Vignette.

Similar in concept to Amazon.com, the online bookstore that "recommends" titles to customers based on what they and others with the same purchasing patterns have bought, the NCI Web site would generate links for a visitor based on what they and others with similar interests have viewed. If a person visits repeatedly, StoryServer can use "cookies" or a user's password to keep track of what he looks at over time and to build an increasingly customized site.

Advocates for cancer patients said the public needs easier access to the latest cancer information, and the NCI project would probably help. For example, said David Harris, director of information technology for health content products with the American Cancer Society, "It's very important for us that the NCI puts the latest information about clinical trials up and easily accessible to the public." Patients often cannot find the information they need in time to take advantage of it, he said, and "many lives can be extended— if not in fact saved— if people have the information readily available."

Gena Love, director of support services with People Living Through Cancer Inc., a patient support group in Albuquerque, N.M., said that for those of her clients who are Internet-savvy, a more user-friendly NCI site would be welcome. But more than half of her patients still do not have Web access, she said.

Van Nevel said NCI will continue to operate its telephone hot line, the Cancer Information Service, but the toll-free service receives only a fraction of the inquiries NCI now gets on the Web.

According to NCI statistics, one of the entry points to its site for patients and the public receives 4 million hits a month, compared to 650,000 calls annually to the hot line. "Our assumption is that it's inevitable that [people] are going to be getting more into [the Web]," Van Nevel said.

Stephens said NCI plans to finish the prototype of the site next month and will begin implementing it by December.

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