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Accommodating—and Creatively Embracing—Technology

Last week, the New York Times published “As Doctors Use More Devices, Potential for Distraction Grows,” which offers a critical look at the place of mobile technology and computers in the hospital. The article presents two distinct critiques.

One is captured in the disturbing stories of personal calls made mid-surgery or the shopping from the operating room, which in my mind moves beyond distracted doctoring to irresponsible and unprofessional actions. The other critique though, of young doctors under “pressure to interact with their devices [a pressure which] . . . stems from a mantra of modern medicine that patient care must be ‘data driven,’ and informed by the latest, instantly accessible information” is perhaps harder to dismiss and remedy.

At times the tone of the article veers narrowly close to an older gentleman in a white coat, waving a finger at the reader and saying “These young doctors today with their mobile phones and their Facebook just don’t know what being a doctor is about.” The articles quotes, Dr. Peter J. Papadakos, an anesthesiologist and director of critical care at the University of Rochester Medical Center in upstate New York, as saying “You justify carrying devices around the hospital to do medical records. But you can surf the Internet or do Facebook, and sometimes, for whatever reason, Facebook is more tempting.”

Considering the monotony of charting, it seems obvious that Facebook, even on a slow day, would be more entertaining, but the larger concern is about professional conduct and responsibility, with or without a mobile device involved.

The article recognizes the real value of  technology in preventing medical errors, in keeping a health worker up-to-date and informed, but fails to seriously consider the dangers—not of idle social networking—but of information overload. The challenge presented to health workers, and so many other professionals, is being able to access a world of information but not being clearly equipped with the decision-making skills to decide when enough information is enough.

Working at an organization that promotes the possibilities of mobile technology in changing health care and health education in the developing world, I see a fascinating juxtaposition.

Mobile technology in one setting, where health workers are bombarded with information overload and constant distraction, is perceived as a potential danger. In another setting, where health workers may have few qualified colleagues to consult and little or slow access to information, it is a tremendous opportunity. We’ve written about how mobile phones can, and are, changing health care and health systems in developing countries in:

 It’s not just medical professionals who are engaged in this struggle. A quick scan of other recent mobile technology coverage from the New York Times brings up everything from debates in the rock climbing world about the place of iPhones on El Capitan to discussions over the use of mobile phones in cars, gyms, and classrooms. See:

There is no question, in my mind, that mobile technology enables us to do more and is forcing us to do things differently. It is changing the way we conduct our lives, the way we interact, the way we play, and the way we work, including how health workers practice medicine. The question also isn’t whether we are more distracted, connected, available, or informed—we are all of these.

When it comes to medical care and medical education, where is the work on the professional etiquette and codes of conduct governing the use of technology in the clinic and in the classroom? The medical profession has long ascribed to the “See one, do one, teach one” mantra, and there is a role for technology in extending the reach of this work. As the medical world and so many others struggle with how mobile technology changes lives—and in some cases challenges ideals— I see no other option than accepting, and creatively embracing, these new tools and figuring out how to use them judiciously.