Trolling cyberspace for relevant information

Ours is an age of information. It comes at us from all directions; unrelenting and ever present. Finding information is no longer a problem, figuring out what to do with it and how to handle the never ending stream of information is.

Cyberspace, i.e. the internet is full of information. It’s available via weblogs, online journals, social media, through professional organizations, via webinars and so on. The problem is that the information has no meaningful structure, making it difficult to sift through. What’s worse is trying to figure out what information is reliable and what information isn’t.

Technology websites like Endgaget, for example, are full of information about today’s latest technology ranging from smartphones and tablets to miniature cameras used for gastrointestinal studies. The advantage of such a sight is obvious; it provides one with information on the most up to date cutting edge technology. The downside, however is that the information comes at such a pace that it can be overwhelming. Websites like ASHP.org are a great place to grab information about pharmacy. Although the information is often static, ASHP offers reliable information on the current status of pharmacy practice.

Weblogs, a.k.a. “blogs” are great sources of information under the right circumstances. They provide valuable information, but can be full of commentary that may be based on little more than the author’s opinion. While searching through blogs it’s important not to get too caught up in the information on these sites and make sure that the information is rooted in fact rather than fiction. Blogs from sources like the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and even ASHP are good places to start.

Online journals remain a good source of information; AJHP, NEJM, Annals of Internal Medicine, JAMA, Pharmacotherapy, etc. I still read the table of contents of several medical and pharmacy journals. When I find something that looks interesting I dig a little deeper. The downside to online journals is that they often require a subscription to access detailed information. This remains one of the biggest barriers to accessing healthcare information in the modern era. It’s unfortunate that some of the most important information to the profession is isolated behind walls designed to keep people out. Perhaps that will change someday, but for now most online journals still offer free access to abstracts. While not ideal, abstracts can often give you enough information to determine if the article is worth pursuing further.

Social media is fast becoming a favorite method for many to quickly scan through incredible amounts of information. Unfortunately the pitfalls mimic weblogs as the information can often become overwhelming at times as well as contain information that may not be entirely accurate. Beware the self-proclaimed experts. I agree with Jamie Pappas of InformationWeek when she said “One of the things that concerns me the most about social media is that it assigns expertise to too many people. Since a great number of our conversations are indexed and return in search results, you can literally stumble upon anyone’s blog or conversation stream without any context as to who the person is and what his or her background or level of expertise might be.” Be diligent when using social media as a source of information, and be sure to verify information before accepting it as the truth.

Webinars are a good source of information for today’s pharmacist. They allows us to take information that was previously available only to those attending conferences and make it available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. This is one area where technology has exceeded expectations for granting access to important new information. Companies like Pharmacy OneSource and Baxa offer a host of webinars to meet the interests of almost any pharmacist, and most are free. In my opinion you just can’t beat that combination.

So how does one keep up with all this information? I wish I could say that it’s simple, but nothing could be further from the truth. My advice would be to stick to several sources of internet based information that you feel comfortable with. How you gather that information is up to you.

Several tools, including Really Simple Syndication (RSS) readers like Google Reader, which happens to be my favorite; social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, although I find those tools helpful for different types of information; email alerts and newsletters are available to help you gather information in an organized manner.

RSS Readers – RSS Readers act as a centralized place to collect information – such as blog entries, news headlines, audio, video, etc – in a standardized format. I personally use Google Reader, but there are others out there that do the same thing. The beauty of RSS readers is that they automatically gather information from several sites in one convenient location. The information is easily filtered, viewed, cataloged and read. In addition many RSS readers offer configuration settings that allow one to store articles for future use, send to others via email or quickly share via various social media channels. Many have questioned whether RSS readers remain relevant with the advent of social media, but I find them as useful as ever.

Social Media – The explosion of social media – services like Twitter and Facebook – have created a new generation of informational excess. I see the uses for Twitter and Facebook as fundamentally different, but many people see them as different sides of the same coin. As a whole they give one access to an endless stream of subject matter. Twitter is a fantastic tool and I use it as much as possible. I’ve connected with several people via Twitter that I would have never met otherwise. These people have provided me great insight into a great many subjects and I look forward to reading what they have to say each and every day. Unfortunately, Twitter only gives you 140 characters to get your point across and it’s often difficult to preview links referenced in various Tweets. In addition, not everyone that has something worth saying uses Twitter. I often struggle to keep up with the 200 or so individuals that I follow on Twitter. I can’t imagine trying to keep up with over 10,000.

Creating lists within Twitter can help manage the stream of information. I use lists to target specific information that I may not want cluttering up my Twitter stream. For example, I have a list for pharmacists. While I like to see what pharmacists have to say, many prefer to talk about their personal lives on Twitter. I don’t need that information so I created a list where I can quickly go to scan their tweets. I also have a private list called “friends” where I keep up with what’s going on with people I’m close to. I like to hear what they have to say, but their information can get lost in the thousands of Tweets I receive each day. This way I simply go to my friends list at the end of the day and see what everyone’s been up to. It works quite well. There’s a good introduction to Twitter Lists here.

Email newsletters and alert – Although certainly considered “old school” I still find email alerts and e-newsletters useful. I receive notices from services like POWER-PAK C.E. Medscape News Alerts, Modern Healthcare Breaking News, PharmQD, etc. Much of the information is a repeat of what I’ve already seen via my RSS feed or my Twitter stream, but once in a while I find a gem.

And there you have it, some recommendations on how to keep up in a world of relentless informational overload. I’m sure there are other ways of collecting and filtering information, and if you have one I’d love to hear about it.

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