Medical spellcheckers

Modern word processing software programs such as Microsoft Word have powerful built-in spellchecking features. If not used correctly, however, these features can be counterproductive.

The spellchecker included in Microsoft Word checks every word you type against a very long list of correctly spelled words. If a word you typed is not found in this list, the spellchecker will flag it as possibly incorrect, by underlining it with a red squiggly line. The red line does not necessarily mean that the word is spelled incorrectly; it only indicates that the word is not in the spellchecker’s dictionary, and therefore needs to be double-checked by the author.

Medical manuscripts, which contain many technical terms that are not included in the spellchecker’s dictionary, tend to be full of words marked with red squiggly lines, making it difficult to distinguish real spelling mistakes from correctly spelled words that are just not in the dictionary.

Although the spellchecker’s built-in dictionary contains a considerable number of scientific and technical terms, it still misses numerous technical terms in specialized areas of medicine. If too many correctly spelled terms are flagged as possibly incorrect, then the author will most likely ignore the red lines, and as a result fail to notice any real spelling errors.

Luckily, Word offers the option to add new dictionaries in addition to the built-in dictionary. Unfortunately, few authors of medical articles bother to do so. It is strongly recommended to add a medical dictionary to the spellchecker, because it makes medical writing so much easier. The small effort it takes to add a medical dictionary to the spellchecker pays off in the long run by dramatically increasing the spelling accuracy of your manuscripts.

There are two options: commercially available dictionaries and free dictionaries. The choice of many professional medical transcriptionists is Stedman’s Plus Medical/Pharmaceutical Spellchecker, which contains nearly 500,000 medical, pharmaceutical, and bioscience terms. It is available as a Windows and Mac compatible downloadable file. It comes with an installer which automatically adds the dictionary to Word.

For those who prefer the free option, there are a number of free dictionaries, some proprietary and some released under an open-source or Creative Commons license, which can fairly easily be found by searching the internet. Quality varies, however, and it is recommended to download any free software only from a trusted source.

Let us now take a look at the dramatic result of adding a medical dictionary.

The figure shows a medical text spellchecked with only the default custom dictionary. A number of medical terms that are spelled correctly are flagged as possible spelling errors. Slide the red divider on the right toward the left to show the same text spellchecked with a medical dictionary added to the default custom dictionary. This time, all correctly spelled terms are recognized as such, and only the real error “efusion” is marked, making the spell checking feature far more effective and reliable.

The spellchecking feature has a few other pitfalls, which will be covered another time.