Information Overload in the Medical Profession

IORG focuses on information overload in the “office” space, but there are many other kinds of IO out there. Here I want to mention the problems seen in the medical profession, which has the distinction that when information in it runs wild, people die. There are a number of distinct mechanisms involved:

  • The interaction of the doctor with the patient during an actual office visit is overwhelmed by the duties imposed on the doctor (by the hospital or HMO) to record everything on a computer. Doctors aren’t great touch typists – they can’t write clearly by hand either, famously – and with only a few minutes available per patient, the time they spend pecking at a keyboard necessarily comes at the expense of their attention to the person across from them. Outcome: less eye contact, less understanding, less curing.
  • The interruptions and distractions that affect us all have a chilling effect on doctors’ ability to even tend to their patients. For example, it has been measured that in a typical doctors’ visit in a hospital ward – you know, where the white-clad MD’s go from bed to bed and see what’s what – there are on average 80 extraneous interruptions. Outcome: a slight change for the worse in a patient’s progress may be overlooked or mis-analyzed.
  • The amount of medical information generated by the research community is so huge that a medical practitioner doesn’t stand a chance of ever reading even a small fraction of the available published papers in their area of specialization. Outcome: patient shows up with unusual symptoms, and the doctor has no idea that a month before a colleague in a faraway land has published a paper outlining the diagnosis and a novel cure.
  • The amount of information available today about a single patient is also overwhelming their doctors. They can get minute by minute readouts of a dozen bodily parameters – but this is too much data to actually grasp. Again, the outcome can be deadly.

So what is to be done?

The most promising source for solutions in computer science – specifically, artificial intelligence. Indeed, you might say that the computer is responsible for much of the IO mess, but it is also coming to the rescue. We already see that the IBM Watson computer (of Jeopardy fame) has been reassigned to advise physicians on which papers – out of the millions out there – are relevant to a given patient’s problem. Advances in natural language processing and understanding will soon take a doctor’s dictation and take care of the filing, freeing the doc to look at the patient. And the reams of monitor data from our bodies are certain to be processed by a Big-Data-fueled Deep-Learning system that will distill out of the raw data insights a nurse can use – such as when to administer which urgent treatment.

Whether the computers will take over the doctors’ jobs is still to be seen – though the nurses do seem to be on safer ground…

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