TTW Mailbox: Selling RSS to Medical Librarians (Updated)

This is great stuff! I asked David if I could post his e-mail to me. He said yes!

David Rothman writes to TTW:

On the theme of how to sell RSS, I’d like to share how I’m ‘selling’ RSS to physicians in my small medical library in central New York state. A big challenge for physicians and other clinicians (especially those not in an academic setting) is staying on top of new developments in their field. This is usually referred to as “Current Awareness.”

Medical Librarians have done a number of things over the years to help clinicians with their current awareness needs. One older technique is to photocopy the table of contents of new issues of Medical Journals when they arrive at the library, and distribute them to the clinicians who want them. This is, of course, very labor-intensive and time-consuming, and many medical libraries had to stop doing it because they no longer had the resources.

A more recent method is for the library to subscribe to distribution lists that email the table of contents of a particular journal to the subscriber. The librarian can, of course, set up email filters to forward the right tables of contents to the right clinicians, but this method still has significant problems.

* Not all Journals offer this service

* The library must still maintain a complex list of which clinician wants which tables of contents

* This isn’t very customizable. A gastroenterologist could, for instance, only want to see updates on Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and might not want to have to slog through all the tables of contents to visually scan for those articles that address his/her specific interests. Some physicians subscribe to these emailed tables of contents themselves, and find that they are glutted with so many items they DON’T want that they don’t have time to filter through and find the ones they DO want. Frustrated, some give up trying to stay on top of their current awareness efforts. This isn’t good for them, and it isn’t good for their patients.

But current awareness is more important than ever with the emphasis in recent years on Evidence-Based Medicine. The physicians I’ve spoken with on this topic have a very clear idea of what the problem is: They need the best and latest information, but they don’t have the time to filter the information for what they need, and medical libraries frequently don’t have the resources to filter it for them. Here’s where the opportunity to “sell” RSS comes in.

“How would you like it,” I asked our hospital’s head of surgery, “if you had one list of items from news or medical publishing on exactly the information you want. Imagine you could flip through this list and check off items as ‘not interested’, ‘maybe later’, or ‘the library must get me the full text of this article’. And what if, when you wanted the full text, you could click a couple of times to order it from the library?”

His eyes widened. “That’s possible?”

I asked him what the most essential journals he wanted to keep up with were and where he looked for news on general surgery. I then created a Google Reader account for him and subscribed to these sources. I then sent him the following:

Hello, Dr. Xxxxxxxx-

I have set up for you RSS feeds of the tables of contents for the three journals you named as most important to you (plus “General Surgery” headlines from Medscape) in a free Google Reader account (this comes with a bunch of other free services from Google that you may be interested in- please let me know).

Go here:


Password: XXXXXXXX

This should let you browse through each item very quickly. If you don’t want to read further, just move to the next item.

If you want the full text of the article, go to “More Actions” and choose “Gmail this”. From there, you can send the citation directly to

If you just want to mark the article for review later, “star” it. Later, you can select “Your starred items” to see a list of just items you “starred.”

You can also add any labels you want to any item so you can find what you want later. (see attached image)

There’s lots more you can do with this, and I know this will be an easier way for you to manage your current awareness than email. For instance:

* You don’t have to use Google Reader for these feeds. You could install a reader on your computer like Abilon , use another web-based reader like Bloglines , or use Firefox browser extensions like Sage .

* You can add not only feed that others have created but CREATE custom feeds via PubMed or HubMed . For instance, you could create a feed that would give you an item every time the phrase “General Surgeon” appears in Medline’s indices, in ANY medical journal. You could also use a service like Google News to add an item to your Reader whenever the term “general surgeon” (or any other phrase or combination of phrases) appears in popular mainstream news.

Please do let me know if/when you’d like some one-on-one time in which we can maximize the benefit of this technology to you. I have begun the process of building a web site to help Physicians learn and do this sort of thing on their own, but that is, at best, months away from completion.

Any feedback you care to offer, in any format, would be extremely welcome and help to shape the way similar services are made useful to other physicians.

In a sort of “Tipping Point” move, I chose this physician to try out feeds first because he’s influential and respected (and enthusiastic about technology generally). Next, I showed this email to the Hospital’s Vice President of Medical Affairs, pointing out that he could use RSS feeds to stay on top of hospital management journals and news, too.

The VP of MA asked for an appointment to set up his aggregator the next day.

I am completely certain that ALL physicians will be making use of feeds or their descendent technologies within the next 5-10 years.

Just a bit more:

1. The next step for my library is to create a portal for medical RSS, striving to make it as easy as possible for clinicians to find and use feeds.

2. I have benefited greatly from and These are easily the best place to start looking for medical RSS feeds, if one doesn’t already know what one needs.

Thanks David! I’m always happy to see how librarians are incorporating a bit of training, a bit of technological expertise and a nice healthy dose of RSS into their services.

Hit David up with comments at david.rothman (at)

UPDATE: David responded after I posted and said he’d had some good feedback and had been emailing with another medical librarian. He forwarded a bit moere of his thoughts (I like the concept of radical personalization!):

A few thoughts:

I personally dislike email distribution of TOCs and encourage other medical librarians to abandon them ion favor of RSS. Here are reasons (off the top of my head) why:
I have met too many doctors that end up feeling overwhelmed by the flood of emails in their inbox and eventually give up.
One of the advantages of RSS is that you can be more specific (if needed) than TOCs. Example: A gastroenterologist specializing in IBD might not WANT every article from J. Gastroenterology. He/she might prefer just to get articles that contain the terms “crohns”, “colitis” or “inflammatory bowel disease” that appear in that journal.
It is much easier and quicker to manage thje contents of an aggregator’s reading list than an inbox- especially when the inbox is used for purposes beyond receiving TOCs.
It takes time for a physician to open a TOC email and visually scan it for the information that interests him/her. An aggregator’s reading list organizes each article but its title, so a physician can decide instantly whether to ask for the full text from the library, or whether just to move on to the next item
If a physician finds an article via an emailed TOC he/she wants the full-text of, it takes some time to email the details to the library. Many aggregators (like Google Reader) have an “email this item” button. I’m encouraging my first few users to forward the item directly to (my library’s Lit Search/Doc Delivery inbox).
If the physician forwards the TOC details to the medical library to request full text, the details often WON’T include the PubMed ID. Often, they won’t even include Volume, Issue, or page, either (depending on the whims of the person at the journal’s publisher who decides how TOC contents are formatted). If you set up an RSS feed for that same journal from PubMed, you can be sure to get ALL the information needed to quickly acquire the full text.
Some journals don’t have TOC email lists. But you can generate an RSS feed from PubMed for any Journal you want, whether or not they offer TOC emails or RSS feeds. That way it doesn’t even matter that Elsevier (dang them to heck) is so far behind on RSS.
RSS is also just XML, really. This means that if you NEED to, you can convert the content of an RSS feed to HTML (for a web page) or to email! That way, you can still have email subscriptions, but ones that are MUCH more specific to the needs of the physician than TOC emails.
I don’t think that RSS has to be beyond physicians, and that medical librarians can develop tools to put the use of RSS easily in their reach. I see two ways of doing this, a web-based directory and subscription service and pre-configuration of aggregators.
Web-based directory: What I’m working to build (still in planning, not a keystroke of code is written yet) is a site that will let physicians find the sites they want (not dissimilar from or, and then subscribe to the feeds with a SINGLE CLICK.

I plan to make this feasible by allowing physicians to search by discipline, then separate into Medical Professional News, Mainstream Medical News, and Medical Journal articles.
Also making it easy for physicians will be having three subscription buttons for each feed. RSS (generic), Subscribe via BlogLines, and Subscribe via Google. The Bloglines and Google readers are powerful, easy to use, and will work on any computer with a modern web browser. All the physician has to do is find the feed(s) he/she wants, and click the button. That’s it. The physician is subscribed.

Pre-configuration of aggregators: In the email that Michael Stephens posted, you’ll see that I did a brief interview with the physician to determine is current awareness needs and wants, then created a Google Reader account and configured it FOR him. All he now has to do is log in and start playing with it. It took me about 30 minutes to find/create the feeds he needed and set them up in his Google Reader account. That may seem like a lot of time spent of the less tech-savvy docs, but the value to the physician is high enough that I’d be okay with it taking an HOUR per physician. Also, once you get them started, most will figure it out and be able to manage their own feed subscriptions.

One of the tenets of Web 2.0 is radical personalization, right? I think that RSS allows for this in ways that email simply cannot touch. The problem used to be that Physicians couldn’t find information they needed. Now the problem is that they have far too much. RSS can help them get EXACTLY what they need- and no more.