Doctors and the Reality of Information Overload

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Perhaps the biggest challenges facing the next generation of physicians is information overload.  The problem: Unlimited information on limited human bandwidth.  There’s simply too much to read and see.  For physicians the problem is compounded by a perceived responsibility to keep up.

But the idea that we actually can have our hands around everything is reflective of a time when doctors actually could know all there was to know.  Many of today’s physicians were raised at a time when a paper inbox and a pile of journals represented their only information inputs.  But things are very different now.

Here are a few ideas on controlling your inputs:

Accept that you can’t keep up.  I raise this idea at the risk of sounding horribly pessimistic.  But it’s a critical first step in making peace with the new world around you.  Recognize that you are powerless over the volume of information available to any one doctor.  Then you can begin to develop realistic strategies for capturing what you need.

Understand the difference between what you want to know and what you need to know.  These are two very different things. Capturing what you need to know is an approachable goal. Trying to capture all that you want to know is much more difficult and is likely to result in ongoing stress. I try to think of my information inputs in two categories: core inputs and wildcard inputs. My cores consist of clinical information on EPIC, 2-3 journals, 3 email accounts, and about a dozen blogs/news sites. My wildcard inputs include my Twitter feed, Google+, non-fiction books, and other interesting things that find their way into my world.

Allow time for serendipity.  My cores are what I feel I need to stay on top of; my wildcards are the gravy – they’re where I get most of my good ideas. I try to crush my cores in the most efficient way possible (always a struggle) so that I can enjoy the serendipity of my wildcards.  My cores are my homework, my wildcards are playing.

Create a system that brings information to you.  A decade ago we used the web to find information. Now information finds us through our social networks. Surround yourself with brilliant individuals who will bring you what you need. Use their eyes and ears find what you need. I have traditionally followed very select individuals on Twitter for this very reason.  Now on Google+ I am experimenting with circles that contain information from the best curators available.

I have been working recently with the folks from the C3N Project and I participate in their Social Cast network. Here I have some of the brightest health innovators in the free world sharing things in one very concentrated feed. They bring me information that I could never find. I also reciprocate with my best information.

Minimize noise.  The key to successful input management is the minimization of noise. And on social channels this means listening to those with the best signal (information) and tuning out those making the most noise.  Ruthless tuning and control of who you let in is so important.  The sooner you abandon the dated concept of the ‘courtesy follow’ the closer you will be to defining the signal you need.  I struggle with email noise and work desperately to keep ads and non-critical communication out of my inbox.

But what if you miss something?  You will.  Get over it.  Make peace with what you need to know and have fun with the rest.  Follow as little as you can get away with and then trust that if information is important, it will find you.

This is a work-in-progress for me and I’ll have more to say as I harness my ideas.  How do you manage inputs?