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Working at a Whirlwind Pace

October 20, 2010
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More and more, doctors are being sucked into today's electronic communications vortex, just like the rest of us

As we reported on and discussed in our August cover story, CIOs, CMIOs and their colleagues are busy these days responding to the explosion in handheld mobile device usage on the part of physicians (as well as other clinicians). Consider this: this summer, the Menlo Park, Calif.-based Spyglass Consulting Group released a study in which that firm polled physicians on their use of smartphones specifically, and found that 94 percent are using their smartphones to access medical information and to manage their personal and business workflows. The physicians who responded to Spyglass’s survey also reported that they were becoming overwhelmed with the volume of communications they are now receiving from colleagues, care team members, and patients.

In other words, doctors are now like the rest of us—sort of. So here’s what’s particularly interesting to me. On the one hand, anyone who is a professional in the working world these days—and, to be honest, many who are not professionals—is pretty much overwhelmed by communications in this day and age. I know I am. I receive literally hundreds of new e-mails every day, including probably at least 50 to 60 important business e-mails that require a response or action. And I spoke recently with a colleague in communications at a major academic medical center who told me that he gets at a minimum 200 e-mails that require action every day. So the pace of work and business is only becoming more intense, and communications are coming at all of us now in waves. Remember when correspondence was by snail-mail letter? (And of course, no one called it “snail mail” back then, as it was the only mail!) Truly urgent communications were handled by telegram or cable. And long-distance calls were considered “special.” And yes, I’m totally dating myself by admitting I remember all that—not to mention mimeographs and the earliest, awful, photocopying machines.

Nowadays, though, colleagues can send e-mail messages demanding a response within minutes; and it seems as though everyone I know is desperately trying to control the wave of communications crashing onto their heads every day.

Is it any surprise that some of the splash from this wave might eventually hit physicians as well? On the one hand, doctors are to some extent protected by their staffs from too many direct demands for online communication. On the other hand, in a day and age when the neighborhood sandwich shop and cupcake truck are taking online orders, who is ultimately safe from the online communications vortex?

Doctors, of course, have very legitimate concerns, particularly when it comes to issues like e-mailing/messaging with patients. They could really quickly become overwhelmed by the process. And of course, there are the medical-legal and reimbursement issues around direct physician-patient communications.

Still, even apart from that area, it’s clear that doctors are turning more and more to mobile handheld devices to keep up in their professional lives. As we detailed in the August cover story, making things work for them in terms of mobile computing is going to be one of the most important challenges for CIOs, CMIOs, and CTOs. And whether they end up messaging directly with patients and families, they are using their handhelds to check results, access images, and communicate with their colleagues more than ever before. Keeping that in mind has got to be a top priority for healthcare IT leaders going forward; because if doctors become completely overwhelmed, how will our healthcare system function?

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