Monday, 22 October 2007

RSS 2 Email - Progress or hindrance?

Subscription to TOCs via email has been a popular method amongst physicians of keeping up to date with their favourite medical journals for some time. I was hesitant to provide such a service on MedWorm since I wanted to introduce physicians to the benefits of RSS.

My reluctance to provide an alternative to an RSS aggregator was based on experience in rolling out new systems in large companies. There are always a core group of pioneers that are eager to try out the implementation of a new system, but the majority will need 'cajoling' and there will always be the 'die hards' that need forcibly removing from their old ways of working. The final solution, if management really want to see a new system take off, is the turning off, or outlawing use of, a previous system.

My reasoning, therefore, was that if doctors are going to really embrace RSS, an alternative, such as subscription via email, should not be made available. If I did not provide a subscription via email alternative, doctors would have to, at some point, make use of an RSS aggregator if they wanted to benefit from the information that was available.

However, this argument was flawed by a few factors. Firstly, an email alternative will always be available. Doctors can usually go directly to a publication to subscribe to a journal's table of contents or can use a third party RSS 2 Email service. Secondly, my argument was assuming that the use of an RSS aggregator in place of email was in fact progress and a better way forward.

Watching the uptake of RSS by doctors over the past year has been frustratingly slow. I just have to look at my husband (a doctor) to realise what a big problem this is, and will continue to be. He has RSS forced on him every day. He knows what it is, how it can benefit him. He has an RSS aggregator installed for him and a personal tutor breathing down his neck. I have even been offering to install some feeds for him on his mobile phone - an offer which he hasn't yet taken me up on. Now my husband is young and technically savvy. He loves technology and the latest gadgets. Often it is him who points me in the direction of the latest advances. But does he use an RSS aggregator? Well, not exactly I would say; occasionally; at a push. Why not? Well, it means either opening another application, which takes a fair few seconds, and then waiting for those feeds to refresh, which takes some time more, and having an RSS reader running in the background does seem to add to the performance hit on his computer.

The alternative, an online RSS reader, also has its drawbacks. First you have to open a new web browser. You have to navigate to your online service and then you have to log on. Before all of this, you first have to find a service that you like, add your feeds (which will often fall over for a variety of reasons) and familiarise yourself with how the service works.

Either solution does not qualify with motivational criteria by which my husband operates:

1. Things that are essential, or time saving, in order to complete his work.
2. Enjoyable and absolutely nothing to do with work.

Some would argue that using an RSS aggregator is time saving and would actually help him complete his work (as indeed would I), but the problem here is that the time saved is indirect. In trying to write a report, or find the best treatment for a condition, or pass an exam, RSS would not often be a tool to which one would turn.

Others would argue that using RSS is enjoyable. But for my husband, and I guess the majority of doctors, his idea of enjoyment is something that helps him forget everything that is medically related (although I have noticed that he particularly enjoys watching House, which is a bit of an anomaly).

Now time for a confession. Quite shocking really. I don't really use an RSS aggregtor that often myself. At least not on on the face of it. Ouch! That hurt! Why don't I? And how can I expect others to use it if I, who has realised that RSS is the Bees Knees, don't make full use of it?

I don't often use an RSS reader for a few reasons. Most of the online RSS readers I don't like that much. Google Reader is the most accessible, especially since I have a reminder that is is there whenever I log on to my Google account, which I do for emails, AdSense and my blog. But I find it a little clumsy and wastes a lot of screen space. When starting out on my RSS adventure I tested every aggregator I could find on the market. My favourite was the free, somewhat 'amateur' FeedReader which I really liked for its simplicity. I found that its navigational tree and three window layout enabled me to scan through hundreds of articles in seconds without any clutter. But its disadvantage was the time it took to load and refresh all the feeds, and unless I kept on top of the data and cleared it out regularly, I found that it was slowly filling up my hard drive with thousands of cached items.

The other reason I don't use an RSS aggregator that often is that I am quite lazy in keeping up to date with the latest advances in, well, just about everything, hence just 'can't be bothered'. Regarding technology and Web 2.0, I tend to leave it to David to do the research and let him point out to me if I am trying to reinvent the wheel. I find myself far to preoccupied with my own work that I forget to look at what other people are doing (yes to my own detriment I am sure - something I am currently trying hard to change by spending/wasting a lot more of my time reading other people's blogs).

But hang on a minute, it's not that bad after all, since MedWorm is actually one big aggregator in disguise. Even without bothering to log on I find I can easily keep a track on the latest ideas in which I am interested. I like to keep a watch on the Blog Cloud, in particular items tagged RSS, Health 2.0 and Medicine 2.0, as well as keeping an eye on the Information Technology section of the publications directory, the Technology Consultant and Medical Librarian section of the blogs, as well as the Cancer section of the blogs (which I find keeps me a check on reality and the priorities in my life). And then when I want to pay particular attention to my reading list, I do log on, which enables me to read items I am really interested in via my River of News, keep a track on my reading history and easily save items that are of particular interest to me.

Excuse-me, I digress. The topic was RSS 2 Email. I knew that people wanted this. A medical librarian from down under was specifically looking for such a service which prompted me to finally give way and implement this functionality on MedWorm. The design of the service was tweaked by valuable input from medical technology analyst, Dr Sheela Sharma, who very kindly provided me with the following feedback:

"RSS is a great idea, but I just don't have enough time in the day to look at both my e-mails and RSS feeds. So the service that you are providing is ideal!"

Funnily enough, even though I was dead against the idea in the first place, I'm actually finding I really like receiving RSS 2 Email myself. I don't think I would want to receive hundreds of updates from lots of feeds to my email, but for my favourite, carefully selected feeds, having a nicely formatted email conveniently land in my inbox with the latest updates is working really nicely for me and has given me some ideas on how I might further develop this area, to incorporate the best of both worlds - RSS and email working together - in perfect harmony - maybe that's what would really bring RSS to the masses.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

MedWorm - Medicine 2.0 or Health 2.0?

I've been sitting on the fence for a while reading about Medicine 2.0 and Health 2.0. Now I'm the kind of person that really hates hype and likes to go against the trend, and see myself as a 'doer' rather than a 'talker', so up until now I've resisted getting involved in this 'idle chit chat' and laid low whilst I spend my days building MedWorm.

But now I'm thinking, what the heck? Just so long as I don't get drawn into the ongoing debate between Sermo and Medgadget regarding security/privacy loop holes in social networking models ;)

To begin my debut into the 2.0 arena, I have been looking at the difference in usage between the terms Medicine 2.0 and Health 2.0 From what I understand, Medicine 2.0 is used when referring to Web 2.0 sites primarily for medical professionals, whilst Health 2.0 is a term used for sites geared towards health consumers (a term that I find somewhat strange coming from the UK - here we don't really consider patients as 'consumers', probably due to the provision of the NHS - health is considered a basic right, not really something that we buy/consume).

So is MedWorm Medicine 2.0 or Health 2.0? Is it for the doctor or the patient? My original intention was that it would be for the doctor (and other health professionals) with articles grouped by medical speciality. But then I realised that a lot of people assumed it was actually for the patient, since it was providing a user friendly way for people to find the latest information about their particular conditions.

I was sent a kind comment by another webmaster who is using a MedWorm feed to help populate his own site with relevant new content for a particular condition:

'Medworm fits in a sweet spot between medical professionals and the lay public.'

It was at this point that I began to clarify my vision for MedWorm. It would provide a forum for understanding and discussion among both medical professionals and consumers. Note that I say discussion 'among', rather than 'between'. A lot of Health 2.0 sites are providing an extension of service between doctors and their patients - patients ask questions, doctors give answers, which is all well and good.

However, as I see it, for Medicine/Health 2.0 to take that real leap forward (to dare I say it, Medicine/Health 3.0?) I don't see an automation of services being the end result as some might (for example, the diagnosis of a patient by computer - input all the information and the computer tells you what the problem is, and the cure/medication). I believe that computers will never replace man's intelligence, rather assist it. The Internet opens up new lines of communication that before were never possible. Like the building of roads, the invention of the automobile, the aeroplane, the telephone - all of these things opened up new ways of communicating and hence working.

In today's society, patients now want to know much more about their conditions (and rightly so!) Many want to know all there is to know, will read all the latest research, and will often know more (about their particular condition) than their physician. Not that I think the physician has any less an important role to play than before - their medical education and experience will always be vital in guiding the patient down the right path of thought, to put their limited understanding into a wider medical context - but this for sure will become increasingly a different role than previously understood, whereby almost everyone followed the doctor's instructions without question.

The Internet provides an amazing opportunity for medical professionals and health consumers to unite in the battle to solve many of life's ills. I'm talking here about truly working 'together', not just side by side. Think about it - patients, and their families, have motivation that a physician never could. Often their lives are at stake. Patients will go to extraordinary lengths to raise money and awareness for their cause. Increasingly, this is becoming the same for research. Look at the advances in Aids/HIV research that were made in the 1980s - wasn't this due largely to the patient led Aids awareness groups that were busy raising the public profile , drilling up funds and even getting personally involved with research into this devastating disease? But without the knowledge and firm grounding in science that a medical professional holds, this enthusiasm can be easily misdirected. I think that patients, physicians and medical researchers working together is vital if real advances are to be made in solving some of life's' biggest problems.

Already we are seeing a move towards this new way of communicating, with patient blogs being increasingly subscribed to by physicians, and vice verse. It is my hope that MedWorm can help facilitate the opening of such lines of communication. First off, by ensuring that the right people get the right information - both patients and physicians want to read consumer style health news and the latest research. Secondly, it now provides a forum for discussion centered around the latest publications - it does not matter whether you are a professional or a consumer - MedWorm is visited equally by both and the ultimate objective between these two groups is the same. For this reason MedWorm does not have any issue with identifying who is a professional and who is not - all are welcome, and since discussions are centred around professional publications and authentic news sources, and are moderated, this helps to keep discussions focused on MedWorm's objective - the advance of medical knowledge. Thirdly - well, watch this space - don't want to give too much away about my plans for the future!

As for an answer to my question, is MedWorm Medicine 2.0 or Health 2.0? It is neither, or maybe it is both. It is Medhealth 2.0.

Monday, 1 October 2007

RSS Reader in my Mobile Phone

I've just bought a new phone. It is a Sony Ericsson K800i
What a pleasant surprise to see it includes a pre-installed RSS reader!
This will surely increase the take-up of RSS, as people scroll through the available functions on their phones they are bound to ask 'what is RSS?' when they see 'RSS Reader' with its little orange icon listed. And what better a way for busy doctors to receive all the latest news updates on their speciality than directly to their mobile phone/Blackberry?