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Listening to researchers is crucial to information planning

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For the information professional working in the medical world, demands are intense but cash is tight. Rebecca Pool talks to GE Healthcare's Tracey Evans about its Knowledge Centre

GE Healthcare doesn’t have a library, it has a Knowledge Centre. Low-level seats, coffee tables and wireless internet access make it the kind of place where employees can work, browse the small collection of print journals, leaf through the latest medical standards in Pharmacopoeia or drink tea.

‘The days of not being able to carry your coffee through the library are gone,’ says Tracey Evans, strategic information manager for Medical Diagnostics at GE Healthcare. ‘As with many library and information centres we’ve moved from a very traditional print environment to what I would call a 21st century high-tech information service, residing in a state-of-the-art research and development building.’

Evans and her colleagues provide services to GE Healthcare’s researchers across Europe and the USA, around the clock. This is quite a tall order and reaching everyone takes a lot of work, according to Evans.

Like many other libraries in global organisations, print stock at GE Healthcare has been pared down to a minimum. At least 90 per cent of the company’s journals collection is now in electronic-only format. ‘We still keep some print stock, rare, hard-to-get or very expensive-to-buy materials but because we are providing a global service we have contracts for [electronic] journals where possible,’ she explains.

The team has also built an in-house website for the GE Healthcare employees. It serves worldwide customers, predominantly medical researchers, and is continually working hard to drive the scientists to the portal. Access to recently-purchased products is available as well as links to other departments, such as marketing, that hold relevant information.

This in-house website also contains promotional links to vendors’ products. ‘Publishers often give you free trials of products, which provides an opportunity to publicise your department and let the researchers know what’s out there,’ explains Evans. ‘The Royal Society of Chemistry, for example, has been offering free trial access to some of its journals for customers that have contracts with them. I think publishers are aware that it’s important to keep customers up to date and the ability to try out new products can benefit everyone.’

This is just one example of how the general trend towards more ‘virtual’ libraries has had an impact on the way Evans and her colleagues operate. As she asserts: ‘You can’t just sit behind a desk and not talk to anyone anymore. You now have to be very pro-active and try to eradicate this old-fashioned idea of libraries – that’s why so many companies are trying to move away from the notion of “the library”; the information centre offers so much more now and is very much becoming part of the business.’

Educating users

Consequently, Evans and her colleagues now spend a lot of time making sure that the information users are aware of the resources they have. The team gives presentations, hosts Webexes and attends R&D meetings. They have also created internal distribution lists to keep users informed of what’s available.

In the past, so-called ‘lunchtime learning’ sessions have proved popular. Evans explains: ‘Folk have been asked to come along and see a presentation. We tell them what we are up to, walk them through where we are going and ask them to share with us their information needs. Events such as these provide us all with the opportunity to “think out of the box”.’

One of GE Healthcare’s products for radiology

But as well as making GE Healthcare’s researchers think, Evans also has to persuade them that the information department actually offers more than the internet. ‘“Oh, just Google it!” is a big challenge,’ she says. ‘I know open access is good, but you are not going to find the really good information free on the internet. We want to be a one-stop shop and provide seamless information delivery.’

And seamless information delivery is a service that Evans believes is crucial for every researcher to make use of, right from the beginning of a project. Indeed, the information team recently toured the company with the patents department, presenting this very message.

‘Say you are researching a new molecule and you’re not sure whether it’s going to develop into a medicine or treatment, you need to ask what’s out there already and who’s doing it,’ explains Evans. ‘It’s much more cost effective to do that than get into your laboratory, start experimenting, only to later find out 10 people in China have already done it.’

In fact, the urgent need for up-to-date information is what is really important today. ‘The information that researchers need hasn’t changed, but the way in which it is delivered has,’ she observes. ‘We have chemical structure databases, electronic journals and so on. It is now all about delivery and that has to be quick, timely and provide the right information.’

The steady stream of recent graduates to GE Healthcare highlights the importance of information delivery. Fresh out of university and used to a library packed full of resources – typically more than an industry-based information centre – the young scientist has very high expectations.

‘These new graduates expect to be able to download [papers] and have access to good information that they can drop into, say, Reference Manager or another system,’ points out Evans. ‘I think they would be really frightened if they walked into a library and all they saw were print journals and no computers.’

GE Healthcare’s researchers develop a range of tools to help medical professionals

Elsevier’s Science Direct is just one example of a range of resources that Evans believes is crucial to satisfying researchers’ information demands. ‘When it comes to publishing, the scientific community can be quite prolific. They build on each other’s knowledge so they need to be aware of what’s out there to be on top of their game,’ she adds.

Financial pressures

But keeping your researchers one step ahead of the competition is becoming increasingly challenging. Cash shortages are now a fact of life for information professionals worldwide, especially given the present global economic crisis. The US Association of Research Libraries, a not-for-profit organisation representing the libraries of 123 North American research institutions, recently released a statement saying its members are facing substantial reductions in both operating and materials budgets.

Libraries in commercial sectors face equally challenging times, and the team at GE Healthcare is no exception. With recent reports pointing to downbeat financial assessments from the ‘big three’ healthcare businesses – Philips, Siemens and GE Healthcare – Evans acknowledges that funds are tight.

GE Healthcare produces a range of medical products such as this information capturing platform

‘Obviously there are budgetary pressures,’ she says. ‘Yes, we have fewer staff as we have more electronic resources and we’re probably doing more now but I have to say throughout my career, efficiencies have always been a major part of delivering a focused and effective information service.’ Indeed, the team at GE Healthcare is accustomed to working within a strict budget. As Evans also points out, General Electric, along with major pharmaceutical companies and now the NHS, is a long-standing supporter of the Six Sigma. This management strategy aims to reduce inefficiencies and eliminate waste, whether it be time, money or ways of working.

First rolled out in the 1980s, GE’s then chief executive Jack Welch leapt on the technique in the 1990s, claiming it has saved his business $2 billion in 1999. Today corporate strategy has moved on, but Six Sigma is still deployed.

So, be it down to economic climate or company strategy, how does the information professional operate in today’s information-hungry efficiency-seeking environment? As Evans puts it, you have to work on a ‘need to have, not just a nice to have’ basis, constantly re-assessing what you do and how you are doing it.

And while the team can gather useful information such as the usage statistics of core reading lists, being in contact with the researchers remains instrumental when making cost reduction decisions about materials stock.

‘When we’re deciding what we need to buy for 2010 for example, by July or August we’ll be looking at what the researchers are working on as well as asking them what they want,’ she explains. ‘We may then have to make some difficult decisions about information requirements for our often diverse customers across GE Healthcare, but we are always focused on critical needs.’

Passion for planning

Clearly being an information professional at GE Healthcare is about forward planning, forging relationships and finding out which tools and products are really important to the researcher. Evans speaks passionately about how information professionals can ‘add so much’ to a business as long as ‘we’re not complacent and expect people to understand what we do’.

Indeed, many of the skills Evans considers to be instrumental to her role, remain, and should remain, unnoticed by the customers. Access to information on the library’s website is just one example she cites, saying: ‘If I’m a scientist and sitting in front of our website, it looks really simple, but there is an awful lot of work going into, say, getting the links right.’

Online cataloguing is another example. ‘Even if you are only cataloguing a journal, you are still dropping metadata in, you are dropping links in and putting the right keywords in so that when someone searches on the database they retrieve the right journals,’ Evans asserts.

But while an understanding of semantics, good IT and web skills are important to this role, Evans points to good organisational skills, an ability to see the bigger picture and an openness to collaborations as being instrumental.

‘When dealing with our researchers we have to talk their language and not talk about OPACs. We have to know what we’re talking about and that the researcher has what he or she needs,’ says Evans.

Evans also agrees with Sandra Ward, onetime UK director of Information Services for Glaxo Wellcome R&D and now senior consultant at information group TFPL, UK, who once said: ‘As an information professional you always know you’re seen as one of the team when somebody asks you to go to lunch.’

Back to basics

UK-based GE Healthcare provides what it calls ‘transformational’ medical technologies and services in the areas of medical imaging, diagnostics, patient monitoring systems, drug discovery and biopharmaceutical manufacturing technologies. It has seven primary business units – diagnostic imaging, clinical systems, IT, medical diagnostics, life sciences, surgery and global services – across the USA, UK and Sweden, with offices in France, Japan and India.

Employing around 47,000 people worldwide, the business is based in Little Chalfont, Buckinghamshire, making it the first GE business segment to be headquartered outside the USA. Products range from wireless patient monitors to critical nuclear imaging systems.

The last decade has seen several high profile acquisitions. The take-over of anaesthesia equipment developer, Instrumentarium, in 2003 now sees the business owning 80 per cent of all anaesthesia machines in the US and 60 per cent of the world’s machines. The business also bought medical diagnostics producer Amersham, in 2004, healthcare IT provider IDX Systems in 2005 and filtration technology developer Whatman in 2008.

GE Healthcare’s parent company, GE, is currently the tenth largest company in the world, according to the Financial Times Global 500. The conglomerate reports to have earned $18 billion in 2008, its third highest figure ever, and boasts some 323,000 employees. Other business segments include rail, energy and electronics.