How doctors can manage information overload

June 11, 2019

Information is certainly not going to slow down, so doctors should come up with a plan to keep up so they are ready to have informed conversations with patients.

It’s no secret that doctor burnout is a real and growing issue. I’ve seen it time and again in fellow internal medicine physicians, as well as colleagues in other specialties such as cardiology. But there’s something contributing to this phenomenon that doesn’t get as much attention as EHRs, increased administrative duties, and reduced time with patients. 

That something is information overload. 

To get a sense of sheer volume, as of March 2019, there were 679,747 articles on PubMed labeled “clinical trial.” The number of medical sources continues to climb, and the reality is that new clinical research is coming out so fast doctors simply can’t keep up.

And it’s not that they don’t want to. They just don’t have the time. In a recent survey by Univadis of 550 physicians across five specialties-general medicine, cardiology, endocrinology, oncology, and-64 percent said the time they spend keeping up to date in their field is insufficient. That number was higher for cardiologists (68 percent) and general practice (65 percent) doctors. 

To peel the onion back one more layer, doctors are often finding limited value in investing their time in reviewing clinical research. According to the survey, 82 percent overall said that fewer than half of the studies they do read actually have an impact on how they practice medicine. Cardiologists (76 percent) felt the information they review was slightly more useful, and general practice (84 percent) felt it was less useful, but that makes sense given the breadth they have to keep up on. This begs the question that, in a profession with so many competing priorities, why would a doctor invest valuable time in something that won’t ultimately elevate the level of care they bring to their patients?

While the volume of research increases, patients are changing as well. They are web-savvy and spending time researching their condition. They’re showing up at their appointment more informed than ever, sometimes even surprising their doctors with new information.

In fact, 52 percent of doctors in the Univadis survey admitted that they’ve had patients present them with credible, relevant medical information they were unaware of. That’s no surprise given the Internet and the speed at which new information is released. The fact is that in some cases, a patient with a specific diagnosis probably has more time to uncover every option than their doctor.

If nothing else, the Univadis survey demonstrates that the rise in the volume of clinical medical information is impacting the relationships doctors have with their patients and shifting the dynamic. But it will remain important for doctors to remain informed. 

So what can doctors do to stay up to date and manage the changing doctor/patient relationship? 

  • Figure out your learning style: There are many ways to access information. Knowing whether you like to consume information through reading, listening to a podcast, experiencing it in person in a venue like a conference, or joining an online physician community will help you seek and retain information in the way that’s best for you.

  • Choose your top sources: Given the volume and variety of sources, try to figure out three to four go-to sources and consult those first. Trying to keep up with it all is a sure-fire way to burn out. 

  • Be humble: Doctors can’t know everything, and in today’s interconnected world, we don’t have to. If a patient does present you with something you hadn’t heard of-which happens to all doctors-thank them, let them know you’ll look into it, and then follow through. You’ll be approaching the information they brought up based on all your medical knowledge and can then let them know whether the source is reliable and explain your recommendation accordingly. 

  • Build alliances and collaborations: Interacting with fellow physicians, both at their institution and elsewhere, can generate knowledge and healthy debate on current medical research. There are many online physician communities ripe with insights about which research is actually impacting their practice of medicine. 

  • Seek curated content: Doctors can also look to subscribe to a credible service that summarizes the latest research that is relevant to their field of medicine. 

Information is certainly not going to slow down, so doctors should come up with a plan to keep up so they are ready to have informed conversations with patients.

 

Corey Dean, MD, FACP, FAAP, CAQSM is the associate program director of ambulatory education at St. Joseph Internal Medicine Residency Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is board certified in internal medicine, pediatrics, and sports medicine. He has been a clinician-educator for the past 15 years and practices primary care at the Neighborhood Family Health Center. He is the team physician for Concordia University and Saline and Ypsilanti-Lincoln High Schools in the Ann Arbor area.

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