Posted by: menotmd | May 9, 2009

Twitter and Health Information for Librarians

“I found Twitter to be rich in health care information. I was hooked.”
– Patricia M. Sachet, Biomedical Library, UCSD, La Jolla, CA

On May 2003 a friend of mine invited me to join a website known as friendster.com. It was a website that was unusual in that it allowed people to connect with each other in a manner that was difficult to do through listservs and emails at that time. This particular type of website allowed people to upload pictures, place personal information and add “friends” to a particular area of the homepage. Realizing the power of this particular medium, I had arranged a surprise birthday party for a friend, organized a meeting around a local political issue and outreached to people who shared my love for Capoeira (a Brasilian martial art). All this was done with the help of the information available on the profile pages. Fast-forward to 6 years later, these websites have evolved at a rate comparable to the evolution of computer technology (aka Moore’s Law). Known as social networking sites, these websites are used to maintain contact, re-establish contact and sometimes initiates contact. In 1998, the question used to be “Do you have an email address?” now in 2009; the question is “are you on facebook? Myspace?” Sometimes the question is “Do you have a facebook account?”
Recently, it seems impossible to avoid hearing jargon such as Web 2.0, social networking sites, Wiki, and Open Source. Without some novice hacking experience, many of these words might elicit a rather dismissive response from information professionals who might benefit from these tools. In addition, the use of social networking sites by the younger generation makes these tools seem less than formal to an information professional who has a number of information to peruse and assess – who needs an additional social networking site to update and possibly read an embarrassing post of your friend’s son? In the April 19, 2009 New York Times Magazine, Ms. Virginia Heffernan wrote about a theory Bruce Sterling’s proposed in a South by Southwest tech conference about the direct relationship between poverty and dependence on “connections” such as the internet, cell phones and texting. Perhaps social networking sites are perceived as too-informal for the information professional, however like it or not – these tools are here and pretty soon, a generation of medical students are going to force us to become dependent on them, and if we are not vigilant and proactive, we might be faced with a similar situation such as “UptoDate” where the former students, who are now doctors demand for it’s subscription because it is comforting and familiar, not because it is the best option.
Furthermore, it is important that we make this commitment soon. According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research approximately 6.75 million health related searches were performed on Google daily, and this was 6 years ago. Undoubtedly, this number has increased as computer costs are constantly decreasing, web access is becoming more frequent and people are becoming more fluent in the language of Internet searching.
Given the reasons outlined above, it is imperative that medical libraries embrace one social networking tool and becoming fluent in it. For medical libraries, Twitter is an ideal social networking tool. Twitter is a social networking site that allows you to follow people who share your interests and exchange information. Unlike Facebook and Myspace, Twitter limits the amount of characters you can enter into a status update. It only asks one question: “What are you doing?” While other people may decide to advertise what they ate that night (please take note, some people use twitter as a notepad to monitor what they are eating in lieu of keeping a food journal – a medical tool a systematic medical review has coined food journaling a method to combat obesity), you may decide to write: “just read the latest article in the NEJM on DDI’s with ACE Inhibs and SSRIs” and attach a tinyurl (a shorthand version of the long url to find a particular page – twitter does this for you). In addition, twitter has programs such as Nambu and Tweetie that updates the information your peers or colleagues (known as “followers”) may enter at that moment. These programs also allow you to conduct searches and alerts you to information someone may have just entered regarding the search you are doing. As medical librarians, we work closely with researchers, medical students and faculty and are privy to information they seek. With twitter, instead of emailing a note regarding an article you know a student needs, you can just update your status with the article URL or write to the person: “please see me.”
This brief interaction is ideal for librarians as we are typically multitasking and working on a number of projects. However instead of sifting through the journal articles and CDC websites for current information, all you have to do is type in a keyword in the search box and Twitter will alert you when someone uses that particular keyword in that moment – similarly to myNCBI search, where it will alert you of new information regarding your search.
Many social networking sites require the tedious task of logging in and finding people to friend. With twitter, keeping your profile public and professional, the serious information seekers will seek you and follow you. Of course, you may make a mistake and follow someone who may not add value to your web space, however, you can choose to no longer follow this person and free yourself of any information you might find unsightly. We have to embrace Web 2.0 technologies and attempt to draw professional boundaries. Twitter is not only easy to accrue information pertinent to your job; it is also easier to manage your following. You will find pubmed, the CDC, medlibs (which is the twitter account for Medical Library Association) and a number of doctors and researchers who post current information.
If you commit to make a professional presence, you become a clearinghouse or a voice on a patron’s desktop as they will follow you because you will provide accurate, critical and current medical/health information. But more importantly, the stakeholders in the healthcare system will recognize you to be as open and accessible as these social networking tools.

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