Developing/Providing a Bespoke Public Health Current Awareness Service

This blog is based on a document I shared with a couple of health librarians last year. The purpose is to show how I developed and  provide Current Awareness services to our Public Health team. Although it may not be feasible for you, but hopefully give folk an idea or two! Remember – purpose was to provide people with current awareness on an individual level. This allows the specialist to keep up to date without being overwhelmed with the time it takes and the irrelevant information!


In response to information needs analysis findings, I created individual/team level current awareness using RSS Feed Reader (originally Google Reader then onto Feedly) to be manually appraised for relevance and then added into WordPress account to host. These were then directly emailed to the individual and/or team. Whilst how I approach it has changed, the basic concept has remained and has been well received.

The Goal

Current awareness at an individual level delivered in a user friendly manner


To avoid ‘information overload’ and to ensure that (originally all Primary Care Staff, but now) Public Health Bolton staff have direct access to resources relevant to their individual needs rather than generic in a manner that suited their needs.

The Problem:

Whilst undertaking our annual information needs analysis it became apparent that users were not accessing as much evidence and current awareness as they could do – which was confirmed by Athens Statistics and conversations with ‘friendly’s’. The problems seemed to be lack of access in preferred method, lack of time to find themselves and also difficulty finding relevant information (much public health evidence is lumped into generic journals). Simply put – we were a bespoke library service offering a generic (current awareness) service in an unfriendly manner.

The Solution:

The problem was two-sided, both the message and the medium were an issue!

The Medium

When deciding how to present the current awareness, a few things had to be considered:

  • NHS/Public Sector friendly
    • No money for a bespoke service, so need to use free to access resources
    • Needs to be fit for purpose – will it work within the IT networks? Can I access it? Can the users access it?
    • Has to fit in with organisational ‘ethos’ both locally & nationally
    • User Friendly
      • Will the users be able to ‘handle’ it? RSS feeds are fine, but many have no interest in ‘keeping’ up with them, ETOC’s too generic and cumbersome.
      • How do they want it delivered?
      • What do I know
        • This is only an aspect of the role, need to be able to fit in with the daily routine.
        • Easier if it uses technology I am aware of/can use.
Setting up the Technology
  • When deciding on what technology to use, the Horizon Scanning Bulletins I contribute to here in North-West NHS Libraries were very influential. The way I collated potential items was almost identical, it was just the output that differed.
  • I used a RSS Feed Reader to collate multiple feeds (collated manually from a variety of sources:  journals we have access to – sharing items we could not access was a giant bugbear of users; relevant think tanks and other ‘grey’ publishers; pre-ran searches with auto-updates; government departments; health sections of newspapers & decent websites etc.). Feedburner was useful for creating feeds where non-existed.  Whilst RSS feeds as an end product never got going due to user disinterest, found it a near invaluable resource for this. I started over with c150 different feeds, but the list constantly evolves, with it currently being nearer 70.
How it Works
  • These are then checked – normally on a daily basis -and the results are appraised for relevance to users. They are then manually transferred to a specially created blog – in this instance hosted by WordPress. The ‘Press This’ plug-in makes things approximately 3000 times easier (although not sure if this is available on IE7 or IE8). I add basic self-created metadata to each item (I had several sets but now just have ‘source’ and ‘topics’).  Once the ‘blog’ has been updated, I then send the relevant links from the website to the relevant people (preferred method of receiving information as per information needs analysis).
  • This was the easy bit, the hardest part was finding out what topics people were interested in!
The Message

I need to ensure that the message was correct:

  • What topics, themes, areas were individuals working on?
    • Public Health is a very broad term. Work streams within that – mental health physical activity, older people etc. are still very broad. Were there particular aspects people were interested in within their public health speciality?
    • What types of information of do people want?
      • And just as importantly what do people not want?

What Do People Want?

LQAF requirements (5.3’s I think?) includes a lot of service and user needs analysis. By undertaking information needs and current awareness services analyses, I was able to get a get grip on people’s perception of the service and how they liked to receive information, but less on what they wanted.

To resolve this, I just went and talked to people. In some cases, this was very straightforward – I already had strong relationships with the public health team (as a member of the team already); I found certain primary care groups very open to this and for me to attend team meetings (especially the physio and MSK teams – I found these to be very high on CPD, continuous learning etc.) some less so (School Nurses had very little pick-up). Some user groups had no interest in engaging what so ever (*cough* GP’s *cough*).  Either at a team meeting or in individual conversations I explained (in non-library terminology terms):

  • What I intended to do, and how it would benefit them
  • What I needed from them – specific topic areas and themes (think reference interview)
  • What they wanted from me – what do they like and dislike: tended to be too much irrelevant information, general information overload resources they couldn’t access, (I would then explain how we would work round these)
  • What the constraints were – IT etc.
  • How much it would cost – nothing! Just a promise to feedback and if they like it share with colleagues

As mentioned previously, this was often packaged as just another service they could get from the library, fitting very nicely in with information consultancy and document supply.


Looking back on it (nearly 4 years since launch), it is obvious now that the message – the information that I share – is so much more important than the medium. Getting the right information to the right people has been the biggest plus, and I still receive positive feedback from the items I send out on a near daily basis. It saves people time and supports their professional practice.

Whilst the website itself has had over 19,000 hits since launch, from a service standpoint, it has aslo led to an increase in the use of electronic resources and other services, document supply & information consultancy specifically. The strength of these three services (couple with my wider Public Health Intelligence role) allowed for me to develop the service into what it is today, without losing any of the most accessed services.

Upon reflection,  in its current cycle of provision, perhaps the blog as an output device is less relevant and could even be retired now the foci is purely public health (I am aware other non-Public Health Bolton folk access the blog as a CA tool but not paid to look after them!) . As the system is four years old, the technology evolves (in theory) so perhaps the next iteration will do without these aspects. Technology needs to balance between what works of your IT set-up, what users want, and what is most effective. I would also recommend being aware of ‘copyright’ issues – when we were part of the PCT there was litigation around ‘news-scraping’ services that affected the way I produced this.

Whilst it is almost universally well received, some people (including public health staff) and (as mentioned earlier) user groups have failed to engage. I tend to view that as an issue at their end not with the set-up, whilst still supporting them the best I can. I am also aware that it would be very difficult and time consuming  (at this bespoke level it is approximately 8 hours a week) to make this work at a larger level, and would require a dedicated member of the team to support a larger workforce to this degree or a more diluted approach.

On a professional level, developing this aspect of the service has been very positive for me. It has allowed me to show my ‘evidence skills’ to a greater level, almost becoming an evidence enabler with a ‘read this, it will be good for you’ role within the wider team. It has no doubt strengthened my role and standing within the Public Health team.


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