SNOMED has announced the launch of SNOMED Clinical Terms (SNOMED(R) CT) First Release, the clinical coding terminology that the NHS has part funded and chosen as its preferred clinical terminology tool for coding electronic clinical data.

The new terminology, developed by a division of the College of American Pathologists, is said to be the most comprehensive international and multilingual clinical reference terminology available.

"SNOMED CT heralds an important milestone in the development of standardized terminology for health care," commented Peter Drury, Head of the NHS’s Information Policy Unit.

He added that SNOMED CT First Release combines the expertise of existing terminology works, including SNOMED(R) Reference Terminology (SNOMED RT(R)) and the United Kingdom National Health Service’s Clinical Terms Version 3 (formerly known as the Read Codes). "We are looking forward to its testing and in-service development in the NHS," said Drury.

The NHS commitment to SNOMED CT as its preferred clinical terminology is set out in the IT strategy ‘Building the Information Core’. This states that “By March 2003 – clinical information systems start to use SNOMED Clinical Terms.”

SNOMED CT First Release is said to provide the common index or "dictionary" against which data is encoded, stored and referenced. This provides greater compatibility across software applications as computer codes used to capture medical concepts in one software system can be interpreted and linked to terms with the same meaning in another system.

The structure of SNOMED CT also facilitates reuse of coded information for a variety of purposes including evidence-based medicine, outcomes studies, clinical research as well as administrative reporting.

The terminology is expected to be a key component of the development of electronic patient records within the NHS. It can be used to standardise surgical records, to code patient problem and diagnoses lists, to support computerised physician order- entry, facilitate consistent tracking of infectious diseases, or to encode health-related literature, among many other possible uses.

"The SNOMED CT First Release controlled health care terminology delivers unmatched content and expressivity for clinical documentation and reporting on an international level," said Kent Spackman, chair of the SNOMED(R) International editorial board.

SNOMED CT First Release contains approximately 325,000 concepts linked to clinical knowledge to enable accurate recording of data without ambiguity. The terminology’s content also includes more than 800,000 descriptions or synonyms relating to clinical concepts, as well as more than 950,000 links, known as semantic relationships, between clinical concepts.

This structure is designed to ensure the proper relationships of diseases, treatments, clinical findings, therapies, procedures and outcomes. SNOMED says the breadth and depth of the terminology, as well as its computer-readable hierarchies will enable faster, reliable and consistent retrieval of robust clinical information and multiple levels of granularity based on flexible queries.

A wide range of clinical specialties in the US, UK, Europe, South America and Australia have contributed to the development and testing of the terminology’s content, from the basic sciences to laboratory, specialty and primary care medicine.

SNOMED CT First Release cross maps to other medical terminologies, such as ICD-9-CM, ICD-O3, ICD-10, Laboratory LOINC and OPCS-4, eliminating duplicate data capture and facilitating enhanced health reporting and analysis. SNOMED CT First Release also is aligned with key health care standards, including HL7, DICOM, ANSI and ISO.

The alpha test of SNOMED CT First Release, which involved more than 42 sites in six countries, was successfully completed in 2001 after multiple stages of design, development, technical evaluation and testing.

SNOMED International will issue the next release of SNOMED CT in July 2002, which will incorporate refinements and editorial changes suggested by early adopters of the terminology.