In the mid-1990s the World Wide Web and e-mail exploded into the public eye, and many people predicted that these and other Internet technologies would revolutionize the way that we live and work within a few years. And while the dot com crash of the late 90s brought us back to reality regarding how easily and quickly that kind of revolution can occur, we have continued to see the Internet take on an increased role in our business and personal lives with each passing year.
As the awareness and skill of individuals grows, technology improves, access become faster and cheaper, and businesses and organizations learn how to more effectively use the tools that are available to them, there is every reason to expect this trend to continue.
The focus of this article is on sharing information and techniques that can help you to make better use of the tools that you are hopefully already using. Most of the topics presented here address questions that many O&P professionals have asked me as an Internet technology specialist working almost exclusively in O&P for the past eight years.
Consider the best medium to communicate.
Every medium of communication has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it pays to put a little thought into how to balance the different methods available to you. Do you carry on back-and-forth discussions about the details of an issue that span days over e-mail, but could be handled in ten minutes on the phone? On the other hand, do you play phone tag or get involved in long conversations when what you need to communicate can be handled with a very simple e-mail exchange? Have you considered the differences between a phone conversation that goes to memory (or notes, if they are taken) after it ends, versus an e-mail that can be saved and archived verbatim by you or the person you are communicating with? The implications of these questions are different for every person and for every situation, but it pays to keep them in mind.
Don't get dragged down by spam.
My Number One rule about spam is to not waste a lot of time getting upset about it, because it is a consequence of the same things that make e-mail great, and we'll therefore probably always have to deal with some spam. Learn to recognize it quickly, make a quick tap on the delete key, and put it out of your mind so that it doesn't turn into more of an annoyance than it has to be.
With that said, in recent times technology for slowing down spam is finally starting to catch up with the spammers. Major services (AOL, MSN, Hotmail, etc) have made great strides and will continue to improve their anti-spam tools, and there are a number of good offerings for users of standalone e-mail programs like Microsoft Outlook. Most of our staff members use an Outlook plug-in called Cloudmark SpamNet (www.cloudmark.com) which compares each message received with a database of known spam messages to eliminate much of the spam without risking personal messages (it does occasionally block newsletters that I actually want to receive, but if I "unblock" them, then it will remember next time). Using this tool has reduced the overall amount of spam that I receive by over 50 percent, and has almost entirely cut out the sexually offensive variety.
A detailed discussion of antivirus software is outside the scope of this article, but software is not the most important factor anyway. Nearly all virus infections happen because a user didn't follow one of the two cardinal rules of virus protection as it relates to e-mail:
1) Keep up to date with critical software patches. For Windows users, this means regular visits to www.windowsupdate.com, unless you have Windows XP with Auto Update enabled. The most damaging viruses in recent years have all been spread through software vulnerabilities that were patches at least months, and often years, before the virus was unleashed.
2) Don't open attachments that you did not expect to receive, especially if the person has not signed his or her name inside the message. When your acquaintances fail to follow Rule Number One, viruses can get hold of their address books and send themselves to you as a message, with an intriguing subject line or body, from these e-mail correspondents. Don't be fooled unless they told you they were going to send it or they sign their name at the bottom of the message.
A permanent address through your own domain.
Are you still giving out your e-mail address as JohnDoeCPO232@aol.com? Most people don't realize how simple it is to have firstname.lastname@example.org, without giving up your existing address or having two separate accounts, through a simple technique called "e-mail aliasing" (or sometimes "e-mail forwarding"). You'll still check your old account in the same way, but your new addresses will be aliased to that account--sort of like adding a toll-free phone number that rings on your regular line. You can then start giving out your new e-mail address, and if you check your mail through a standalone e-mail program like Microsoft Outlook (as opposed to using AOL, Hotmail, etc), then you can also change your return address so that it shows the new one.
If your company already has a website with your own domain name (ie, www.yourcompany.com), you can call your web-hosting company and it should be able to set this up at little or no cost to you. If not, you can register a domain name and get unlimited e-mail aliasing very inexpensively through any number of different registrars (we use www.dotster.com, at $15 a year for the domain name and $10 a year for unlimited e-mail forwarding).
There are a number of important advantages to having an e-mail
address at your own domain name:
1. It is easier to remember;
2. It promotes your company every time someone sees it;
3. It implies that you are up-to-date with Internet technology; and
4. If you ever change your e-mail provider, you can simply update the alias to point to the new address and you wont have to notify all your contacts, who may never even realize that you switched.
The World Wide Web is an incomprehensibly vast collection of information contributed by millions of different people and organizations, changing all the time, with no central point, and very little underlying logic. It is the job of a search engine to make sense of this incredibly confusing mess, and although the technology has become quite sophisticated, search engines are still not very good tools for finding what you need. However, they are the only tools that we have, so if you want to make the most of the information that's available to you, it's important to obtain as much competency as possible in the skill--or art--of using search engines effectively. Here are a few tips that will help you get the most out of your searches.
Know the best tools to use.
Topic-specific search engines can be very useful because they eliminate billions of irrelevant pages and can therefore save you a lot of time digging through results, and they are typically updated more frequently than Internet search engines. If you believe that a specific company or organization has the information that you need, try going to its website and searching or navigating from there. For broader searches that are still O&P-specific, you may wish to try the OPIE search engine, maintained by my company at www.oandp.com. The OPIE search includes the websites from hundreds of O&P manufacturers, organizations, etc., the archives of industry-specific journals and magazines, and the full history of discussions on OANDP-L, the orthotics and prosthetics e-mail listserver, among other resources.
If you can't find the information that you need using a topic-specific engine, or you have a broader search to perform, then you must turn to one of the many engines that searches the entire Internet. In the past few years, nearly everyone agrees that Google (www.google.com) has taken a commanding lead in this area. In addition to having exceptional technology for determining the most relevant results for a particular search, Google claims to search more pages than any other engine, is extremely fast, and is one of the few major engines that still shows the most relevant results first, rather than placing paid listings at the top.
I highly recommend obtaining the Google toolbar (toolbar.google.com), which is a free add-on for your web browser that lets you search directly from the browser, rather than visiting the Google website and then entering a search phrase. This not only makes searching faster, it also encourages you to perform more searches, which increases your chance of finding what you're looking for.
Perform similar searches.
Because a search engine is a very imperfect tool that cannot grasp the intricacies of language, it is crucial that you search on as many different variations of a topic as you can think of. As a simple example, go to Google, search for Upper Limb Prosthetics, and look through the first ten results. Then go back and search for Upper Extremity Prosthetics. Surprised? When I tried, not a single result in the top ten was the same between these two searches. Now take it one step further and try searching for trans-humeral with, and then without, a hyphen. Again, there was not a single result that appeared in the top ten of both searches when I tried [Note: since this article was published, Google has improved it's handling of hyphenated words, so you will likely now see more similarity in the results for this particular example]. Now imagine how much different the results are when you combine variations with a different angle of approach, such as Above-Knee Amputation versus Transfemoral Prosthesis.
What this means is that if you only search for one or two variations on a particular term or phrase, you are likely seeing only a small percentage of the information that is available. Be creative and try to come up with as many ways that people might refer to your topic of interest. Another lesson is to narrow your searches as much as possible, particularly when you are using an Internet-wide search engine that searches billions of pages.
When search engines fail.
Keyword searching is very effective in many cases, particularly as your skills at choosing the right keywords and phrases improve. But sometimes you don't know exactly what you're looking for, or you can't seem to find keywords that really hone in on a particular topic. In this case, your best bet is to use a search engine to find topic-specific sites, and then start surfing. Use the search tools or navigation on these sites and follow the links that they provide to other related sites, branching out to get a feel for the information that is available and narrow down what you're really looking for.
Often you can more clearly define what you need in this process, and then you can return to a search engine to perform a more refined keyword search. The key here is discipline. It's not hard to spend hours drifting into many related topic areas that interest you, and while that's one of the greatest things about the web, it can also distract you so much that you don't find the information that you originally needed in a reasonable time frame.
Tying It All Together
When faced with a tough clinical issue or a question about a specific product, many O&P professionals have learned that the Internet can be the quickest and most effective place to turn. Here is an example of how you might apply the techniques described above:
1. Try a topic-specific search. Visit the website of a company or organization that is directly related to your question (for instance, the manufacturer of a product), or an O&P-specific resource such as oandp.com. Although it still pays to try multiple searches, you can spend less time refining your search and digging through results at these narrower sites.
2. If you haven't satisfactorily answered your question, move on to an Internet search engine like Google. Now you will need to spend a little more time thinking about the best keywords to use, trying multiple variations, and possibly digging through results to find the ones that are applicable. However, you'll have the advantage of searching virtually the entire Internet, using the best technology that's available. Be aware that the results from an Internet search engine are typically one or two months old, so you may find some bad links or pages that have changed significantly, and you won't usually find new websites.
3. If the answer doesn't seem to be out there, tap into the knowledge of thousands of O&P professionals on OANDP-L. If you're not already signed up for the OANDP-L e-mail discussion list, you can subscribe using the blue box at oandp.com. You can then post your question to the list, and wait for responses from any of the over 3,000 list members worldwide. Note that it is best to put some effort into searching the Web first, as this will get your answer more quickly and save all of the list members' time. In particular, be sure to search the OANDP-L archives, available either through oandp.com or oandp-l.org, to be sure that no one has already asked the same question!
There are, of course, many other ways to use the Internet in your clinical practice, from ordering components online to interacting with referral sources to promoting your business.
Jon Shinn is lead project architect for O&P Digital Technologies. During his eight years with OPDT, he has managed the development of oandp.com and dozens of other leading O&P websites. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.