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Who Can You Trust?

April 15, 2009
by Neal Ganguly
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I was talking to a friend the other day who relayed a story about frustration and stupidity. He had purchased a car based on the recommendation of another acquaintance. One who seemed to be well put-together - dressed right, well-spoken, nice house, good job. The car turned out to be a piece of junk. It looked great, but that was about it. My friend was frustrated by his stupidity at relying on the opinion of what turned out to be an unqualified ‘expert’.

This got me thinking about our changing society and how we all accept, interpret and use information in our daily lives. This has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Back then, we relied on newspaper, radio and television for most of our news and information. These organizations carried with them a level of trust – hard earned after many years of reporting. The NY Times, the CBS Evening News, and others implied a certain level of accuracy and authority. Other outlets, like USA Today, or non-network news outlets may have carried a slightly different level of authority, but still conveyed some level of trust. This trust was a cornerstone of their reputations, and a basis for their retaining an audience, which then translated to advertiser interest – their real revenue stream.

Flash forward to today. Those newspapers that have not gone online in a significant way are dying. Network TV news outlets are losing viewers to cable and, increasingly, the Internet. We, as a society, are relying more on Yahoo, Google, MSN and other portals for our news and information. We are also increasingly relying on each other through Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In (and other social networking media lest I date myself by not mentioning the social media of the moment). What kind of trust do we have in these outlets? The difference between an advertisement and an article seemed clear in the NY Times. Not so, when comparing results on a Google search. Who is providing the trust and reliability that we knew we could count on from Time magazine or the Wall Street Journal?

The truth is that this is part of our drive to a self service society. We are being tasked not only with doing our own banking, making our own travel arrangements, and other administrative tasks – we must now also evaluate and render judgment on the validity of information from a dizzying array of sources – often with insufficient background information to do so. Some may argue that self service has reduced our costs for these services. I find that hard to see – travel costs still seem high, banking fees are still in place, and my gas is still expensive (and my windshield is still dirty).

Clinician’s have been facing this challenge for the last several years as increasing numbers of patients appear – already self diagnosed with printouts in hand. We are all facing an increasing barrage of email that can require a significant amount of time to manage, often dealing with minimally important information because it is so easy to ‘reply to all’, or blast to a distribution list at little or no cost to the sender. The ‘cost’ in lost productivity is borne by the receivers. The physician that must spend an extra (unreimbursed 10 minutes) explaining why years of medical school make his or her opinion more qualified that the results of that Google search is but an example of self service gone awry.

Hopefully a structure will emerge from this chaos, one grounded in etiquette, and value. For my part, I promise not to cc you all on my next email, nor will I Twitter you that I changed my socks because I stepped in a puddle. I hope you will extend me the same courtesy.

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