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Managing Information Overload In The Age Of Unlimited Information

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: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at 33 Charts*

Medicine & Information Overload

index medicusImage by Nuevo Anden via Flickr

The growth of medical knowledge is difficult to visualize. One classic representation is the Index Medicus — a comprehensive index of medical journal articles — whose bound copies filled the shelves of medical libraries for 125 years. In 2004, however, the National Library of Medicine decided to stop publishing the Index. The first reason was practical: the Index Medicus had grown from 82 pounds in 1985 to an estimated 152 pounds in 2004. The second and more important reason was the widespread availability of the search engine PubMed — an electronic database of medical literature available for free via the Internet — which made the printed index obsolete. Compared to the Index Medicus, PubMed was more convenient, could be searched more easily, could be updated more quickly, and certainly weighed less. Copies of the Index Medicus are now a historical curiosity; many physicians now search the medical literature exclusively through PubMed.

The story of the Index Medicus and its successor, PubMed, illustrates three ideas.

First, the quantity of new medical information is more than any single physician can absorb, and keeping up to date with this expanding body of knowledge is challenging. As of April 2009, for example, PubMed contained information on 18,782,970 citations in the medical literature and was adding over 670,000 new entries per year. Doctors must not only absorb this flood of new ideas about treating, diagnosing, preventing, and understanding disease — deciding which information is relevant and which is not — but also learn how to apply and explain this knowledge to the patient sitting with them in the exam room or laying ill in a hospital bed.

Second, in parallel with this unprecedented expansion in medical knowledge, new media and technologies have emerged — of which PubMed is one example — which has made the task of searching, organizing, and retrieving relevant information easier. Potential sources of information for physicians include not only printed journal articles like those indexed in PubMed, but lectures, case conferences, and newer Internet resources such as reference tools (e.g., UpToDate), discussion groups, online expert systems, clinical resource tools, and podcasts.

Third, the expansion of medical information and proliferation of new technologies has required physicians to develop new skills and strategies to keep their knowledge current. Often, the availability of new knowledge overwhelms physicians’ ability to process it, a condition known as information overload. In physician’s offices, one symptom of information overload is the common spectacle of unread piles of medical journals stacked up on every available horizontal space.

While many medical schools now require classes on searching the medical literature and evidence-based medicine, few resources have been available designed to teach physicians how to learn and practice medicine more efficiently. (That’s why, over two years ago, I started writing The Efficient MD blog.)

Since then, I’m glad to report that online resources for physicians have proliferated. Ways of improving efficiency and reducing information overload are now common topics on medical blogs. For example, see recents posts in Life in the Fast Lane, Clinical Cases and Images, and Musings of a Distractible Mind.

Thanks for reading!

(Much appreciation to Jacque-Lynne Schulman, Stephen Greenberg, Margaret Vugrin, and Dean Giustini for helping me with an updated estimate of the weight of the Index Medicus. Any inaccuracies in this post are, of course, my own.)

(This post is also published on The Efficient MD blog.)

This post, Medicine & Information Overload, was originally published on by Joshua Schwimmer, M.D..

Information Overload: The New Electronic Administrative Burden

I filter through progress notes looking for the few sentences different from the day before, only to find them sandwiching pages and pages of electronically-produced babble dutifully and automatically mass-reproduced in every note. I wonder, has anyone ever looked retrospectively at the mess created by this process developed to assure doctors were doing what they said they were doing? Ironically, I find we’re rarely reading most of what we re-create each day.

But we’re sure good at following the rules.


I now see prescription refills for each and every bottle of prescriptions ever filled by a patient, the date a patient filled it, and how many pills they received with each prescription. I’m not sure why. I sat awestruck in clinic yesterday when the list extended 94 pages, double-spaced, since January, 2009. No one, and I mean no one, filled that many prescriptions, did they? Or did they? Am I supposed to correct that list? Oh, by the way dear referring doctor, my note’s at the bottom of that listing.


I get pre-surgical notifications, even though I was the one to notify everyone else about the need for admission, just so I can click on the patient’s name again, lest it not appear I’m not doing enough, I guess.


I get EKG results forwarded for me to sign electronically, even though I’ve already read them, and signed them, by hand, on the EKG. I get notified again that the order I entered for that EKG now has a result, and I have to click on that to tell the computer, “I know.” But that, you see, is not enough. I must also log in, review, and sign off on my EKG’s on the EKG server, too. After all, I’m responsible, and it’s all about quality.

Quality three times over.

Now, multiply that same process for each and every other test I have ordered.


I see orders for things I’m not sure I ordered, just to be sure I’m responsible, and watching, literally hundreds of times per day.


I get e-mails and electronic notifications, and electronic communications, as if I know the difference.


I bypass nursing notes that are mere QA checklists and say nothing about the patient, except that a nurse was there last night.


I feel guilty entering data as I talk to my patient while serving my electronic master. Yet I find the stakes are high to assure accuracy and timeliness in clinical electronic reporting. After all, you never hear the bullet that hits you.


I go home on call, am paged, and reprimanded by a patient who wonders why I can’t look up their medication list on-line, even though I’m standing in the grocery store.


Worst of all, I find myself sending myself messages, just to make sure I do something tomorrow that I could not get done today.

Killing me softly …

… with information overload.

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Wes*

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