From the earliest days of the Internet, many firms have tried to build community sites for medical professionals. Large sums of money were expended on technologies, and expectations around these feature-rich sites became very high.
So when a longstanding client, Jobson Healthcare Information (JHI) in New York, wanted to build a community website for America’s 200,000 pharmacists, we at ISL Consulting took it on as a welcome challenge. Given JHI's strong position in the market – they publish the most popular professional magazine for US pharmacists – we knew there would be no shortage of domain expertise or marketing prowess. The question was whether Drupal would permit us to build an affordable yet world-class website with everything from e-commerce to personalized pages, an elaborate friend activity notification system and other community features medical professionals have come to expect from professional sites.
Our experience with PharmQD been exceptionally positive. The larger Drupal platform enabled us to deliver a contemporary user experience on top of a complex database structure. Close to one hundred pharmacy professionals register on the site each day, countless jobs have been posted and the hoped for networks are rapidly forming. The combination of contributed modules and flexibility permitted us to build a site that might have cost millions of dollars a few years ago for a fraction of the cost without sacrificing any major pieces of functionality.
One of the most important features of the site was the need to distinguish between major user groups – pharmacists, pharmacy technicians, pharmacy students and the general user. Each has different required and optional registration fields. Unfortunately, Drupal does not come with the ability to assign roles and fields for each user group out of the box. This is usually handled after registration, automatically or manually by an administrator who assigns roles . Our goal was to automate this process more completely and collect the desired information up front.
We therefore made the initial registration screen a “dummy” screen. It collects transient information used for registration but does not register the user upon submission. Users enter their preferred Username (checked live for duplicates against the database by the User database check module) and they select their role on this dummy screen. When the next screen offers them the relevant registration fields, the Auto Assign Role module has assigned them the proper role on the site.
Nonetheless, many form alterations to the basic Content Profile module were made, like removing certain fields for certain user types, so we had to create a custom module to revise the registration process in these fundamental ways.
The regular Drupal permissions system then handles the fact, for example, that General Users can only rate the 50,000 listed pharmacies on the site, but not participate in Forums.
Continuing Education (CE)
A further complexity to the profile system comes for those professional users who opt to take Certified Education (CE) courses. JHI has large legacy database of CE test takers used by other sites. They wanted to ensure that CE credits across these sites were integrated in their PharmQD user profiles. So when users access CE, web services calls recognize users via name and email against the legacy CE database, pulling their total CE credits and courses into the PharmQD user profile.
The web services also sends back a Student ID that connects this user to their system and pulls the integrated CE test history among the sites from that point forward. Although CE course information is handled through a content type on PharmQD, the actual test delivery and scoring is done by the central JMI application. Web services calls also update profile information between sites.
Although we are interacting with a Microsoft server and database, and there were some challenges in getting everything to synchronize, the integration is seamless to the user.
Pharmacists change jobs frequently. There is a shortage of pharmacists despite the fact that the first jobs graduates get usually pay in the six figures. We use Ubercart to manage the purchase and posting of jobs, and the Node Expiry module to hide them unless renewed after 30 days.
The User Quota module helps administrators maintain the number of jobs a user is entitled to post; this comes in handy for relationships with posters handled off-line. We used the Job Posting module mainly because it had a built in system for applicants to emails their resume to the job poster.
We used Views to display the job postings. Together with taxonomy (possibly Drupal’s finest little feature), this allows users to easily sort jobs by Title, City, State and Job Type, a feature much appreciated by users in feedback. We also modified the Drupal search form to let users search by zip code.
In addition to allowing registered site members to post and manage job listings, we also created a system for automatically posting jobs from third-party XML feeds of job listings. We worked closely with a job listings provider that was supplying several hundred new pharmacy job postings to ensure that the fields of each job posting in their XML feed was properly mapped to the fields in our job posting content type. At the time of implementation, the Feed API module was chosen for this purpose (it has since been replaced by the Feeds module, a fine improvement and used successfully by us elsewhere).
With the addition of some custom code for plugging into the Feed API framework, we were able to map job postings from a custom formatted XML feed and post them as any other job listings on the site. Thanks to the separation of the parsing of feed items from the processing of feed items that is built into the Feed API module, we were able to implement our system in such a way that all of the custom code we wrote for processing feed items can be re-used to provide the same integration of another third-party feed of job listings with a different format, should the need arise.
Pharmacists enjoy making their opinions felt. Although the Blog feature is one of Drupal’s most well-known, most Drupal sites we have built have editorial blogs and do not open the function to all registered users. We were delighted therefore to use Drupal’s full blog functionality this time. Every professional user can post a blog. Early indications are that this is a feature that a group of dedicated users are keen to exploit, so that we finally can use some of the out-of-the-box Drupal blocks like Recent Blog Posts, Active Bloggers, and Recent Comments. The one module we did add was Bloginfo to allow bloggers to give their blogs titles and a description; it seems that this should be part of the core blog module.
Profiles and Privacy
One of the most critical parts of the site is the MyPharm section, which brings together a dozen content types relevant to each user personally. This includes their Profile and Account information, Forum postings and Comments on these with links to each, a list of Friends (see below), Bookmarked pages, Comments on other content, Blog entries, Job Postings, CE credits, Stories posted, and User Points. Nearly all these sections were constructed using Views, filtered for the user. The basic information contained in each of these sections is also rolled up in a user’s personal box that stays with them in the top left hand corner of nearly every page.
A major issue was privacy, and clarifying to users what information they entered into the site was public and what was genuinely private. To accomplish this, on the Profile page we put a Public View button next to the edit button so each user could see exactly what other users would see about them.
The underlying functionality is handled by the CCK Field Privacy module which allows users to set the privacy levels of each relevant field, neatly depicted with an orange padlock. Site members can determine on a field-per-field basis if they want that information to remain private, to be viewable to only their friends, or to be public.
Social Network Features: Friends, Notifications, and News Stream
Our client, inspired by Facebook, wanted to add several social network features that would allow registered members to contact other members, connect them to their profile as “friends”, and stay informed about the activities and actions that their friends took on the site To accomplish these goals we added a new module that worked best with our needs and we added some custom code to create a notification system (both on the site and through sent emails) that would make sure site members are kept up-to-date about the activities related to the user and his/her friends.
We looked at both the User Relationships (UR) module and the FriendList module, and chose the former because it seemed slightly more advanced and configurable with its multiple component modules, plus it seemed to have a greater rate of development and download activity, though both modules are being used widely. In addition, we wanted to ensure that all the privacy settings would be integrated with this new functionality. The UR module seemed more advanced in this area and would maintain the level of user privacy in all areas throughout the site.
The UR module allowed for a high degree of flexibility through the configuration settings. Users can choose how to accept friendship offers and uses nice Ajax pop-ups during the Friend-ing phase. Administrators can easily tailor the emails and onscreen messages that go out for every situation. The ability to use the UI module to create new types of relationships in the future was also attractive.
Notifications and News Stream
In order to accomplish the goal of notifying site members when their friends take certain actions on the site, we implemented two new features--one to send update emails (Email Notifications) to the member’s inbox and the other was to create a real-time News Stream (very similar to Facebook’s NewsWall) that would appear on the member’s MyPharm personal homepage.
For Email Notifications, users can configure the types of site activities for which they will receive emails (seven options exist) and can opt for daily digest emails of notifications in place of instant email notifications. For the personal homepage News Stream, users view the latest activities of their friends (e.g., new postings, comments, changes to viewable profile fields, new group memberships, photo album uploads, etc) as well as notifications relating to a user's own content (e.g., new comments posted to any of their posted content). The system was implemented in such a way that it will be easier in the future to implement notifications for new types of site activity that may require email notifications and new items in the personal home page news stream.
Modules and Development
Over 50 Modules were used on this site. Besides those discussed above they include the Administration module (which we can't live without) and CCK (over a dozen sub-modules), Watchlist, JQuery menu, Content Permissions, Flag, Image cache, Input Filters, Location (7 sub-modules), Account Reminder, AddThis, Advanced Help, Assigned Role, Block Theme, Bloginfo, Block Cache Alter (for performance), Contact Forms, Custom Pagers, FAQ, Global Redirect, HTTP Request Fails Reset, Menu Trails, Modr8, Node Expire, Override Node Publishing Options, Page Title, Pagination, Pathauto, Secure Pages, Tell a friend, Token, User Prune, User Quota, Printer, Email and PDF versions, Rules, Site Tweaks (this Read More link tweak is so basic, it should be in core), Spam Control, Taxonomy Image, Ubercart (12 sub-modules), User Interface, User Relationships, User Points, Views, Voting (Fivestar and Vote Up/Down) and Seven-up (saved us the enormous trouble/impossible task of making the site work perfectly on Explorer 6).
The abundance of configurable modules and Views has led to a slow but steady change in how sites are developed at ISL. For the first time, Project Managers were able to undertake significant work with Views to configure the site and what it displays, often adjusting things on the fly during conversations with clients. Having the basic content types and most block and page Views set-up prior to programmer involvement helped us to streamline our process, significantly decreased overall development time, and allowed us to adapt functionality more interactively with clients. On a site like this, many details only become apparent after launch and many users working with the applications. Drupal has to some extent relieved the post-launch stress of changes by making many of them so much easier to make than before. Our continuing goal is to put ever more site development tasks into the hands of a wider group of employees, enabling programmers and themers to concentrate on delivering the more custom functionality that clients need.
PharmQD was ISL’s seventh major Drupal project (an earlier Drupal.org case study covered a multi-site ecommerce installation.) The project took 6 months to build and was managed by Amy Brotman with help from Amy Shoemaker. The site was designed by Joe Kraynik with Catharine Oshiro. Theming was done by Jeff Turner. Programming was led by Bob Hinrichs and Ankur Rishi with major database tasks handled by Judy Chun.