The Google Effect

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A recent Atlantic article offered a thought-provoking title for those who make their living in the technology world: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" The piece examines how the Internet—as symbolized by Google—is undermining the way people read, learn, and think. The author, Nicholas Carr, frets that the barrage of online activity is reducing our attention spans and, in effect, lowering our ability to analyze material critically.

As healthcare digitizes more and more information, the industry will surely have to contend with this issue. There is something about looking at information on a computer screen that is fundamentally different than, say, reading it in a print magazine or gleaning knowledge in direct conversation with colleagues—and even that practice is in danger of being shoved into oblivion by e-mail. Judy Murphy, a leading nursing informatics expert, made the point at a conference that when sending clinical messages electronically, the sender can never be sure if the message was received, let alone acted upon. Some clinicians have misgivings about embracing IT for fear of losing the face-to-face communication that has so defined their professions; many physicians are wary of having computers in patient exam rooms for this very reason.

What about the impact of the information deluge? As caregivers increasingly use computers to look at lab results, check vital signs, and analyze images, will they too find themselves victim of the shortened attention span that Carr decries? Physicians and nurses are already harried enough. They need tools to sift through the information as much as merely present it. The key will be meaningful data-mining tools and algorithms that can cull through a mountain of clinical data and present that which is clinically relevant.

That capacity can only help improve clinical decision-making. It’s a tall order for software vendors and will require legions of healthcare informaticists, no doubt. But in the long run, the computer can only enhance the already formidable skills of our industry’s clinicians. Assuming, of course, they can hold the "Google effect" at bay.

Gary Baldwin

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