Computers could be enlisted to interpret and dispense medical advice, potentially acting as assistants for harried doctors.

U.S. researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine are using a database of 200,000 questions supplied by AskTheDoctor.com, a website that provides free medical advice, along with 9,000 medical questions gathered from Stanford University and the University of Minnesota.

The NIH has also contacted IBM to discuss the possibility of using its super computer Watson (of Jeopardy fame) to test the questions.

The idea is to determine whether computers can interpret the tone and meaning of questions phrased by online patients, said Dr. Milton Corn, NIH deputy director.

"We are using artificial intelligence techniques to explore the potential of computers to understand and respond to questions asked by consumers about their health," he said. "The material provided by AskTheDoctor.com is particularly valuable to us in our computational research because the patient questions are stated in the exact language as typed by users."

The next step in the study will be formulating answers to the questions. More than 10,000 of the 200,000 questions provided by AskTheDoctor.com have already been answered by a team of physicians, said Dr. Suneel Sharman, AskTheDoctor.com co-founder.

"Imagine the amount of time physicians could save if they could ask a computer assistant a question and receive an instant and accurate response," he said.

"Currently, physicians spend a great deal of time searching in medical books and online while seeing a patient, to help them with their diagnosis. An intelligent computer that understands the language of patients and physicians would be a valuable asset to any doctor."