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Health care workers overburdened by 'information overload'

Baby doctor January 28, 1996
Web posted at: 11:45 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Al Hinman

NEW BRUNSWICK, New Jersey (CNN) -- It's called the "information explosion" -- a seemingly never-ending barrage from television, print, and on-line computers. In the world of medicine, "information overload" is fast becoming a new "disease" in search of a cure.

Medicine, the old-fashioned way: in New Brunswick, patients come to a small, one-doctor clinic for the personal attention they get from Dr. Paul Prodromo. His patients say that Prodromo always takes the time to explain.

But it takes time to give patients more than just an exam and a prescription. It's often more time than some physicians can give.

"The worst thing in the world is for a new patient to come in and then you only have two or three minutes to take care of them," says Prodromo.

To help make sure there's enough time, some primary care physicians limit the number of new patients they'll see -- a tactic that also limits the amount of money the doctor will make.

Also taking time away from patients is a growing mountain of paperwork -- piles of patient charts, insurance forms, and medical journals.

"It never stops in a practice like this," Prodromo says.

One of the hardest things, he says, is finding time to read up on the latest medical developments -- he's often reading as late as 11 p.m. and rising at 6 a.m. for work.

But long hours are nothing new for doctors. What is new is the sheer volume of information they have to handle.

Dr. Lacey

"It is a phenomenon due to high volume as well as rapid changes"

-- Dr. Clifton Lacy
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
(251K AIFF sound or 251K WAV sound)

"It is a phenomenon due to high volume as well as rapid changes," explains Dr. Clifton Lacy of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

Lacy worries about the effects of the "information explosion" on health care -- and whether some doctors are missing the latest medical news. He has compiled studies that he says show some doctors respond too slowly -- if at all -- to new research developments.

Lacy is not alone in worrying about the flow of information in medicine. Dr. John Kostis, also of the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, says that many patients aren't receiving the care they should be.

Part of the problem may be in trying to keep doctors informed of all the possible medications available. In the last 35 years, the number of prescription drugs listed in the Physicians' Desk Reference has more than doubled.

Info explosion And that can make it difficult for health care workers -- and patients -- to keep up with each medication's possible side effects, or interactions with other drugs. Hospitals increasingly are turning to sophisticated computer programs for help on everything from tracking drugs to making sure patients get the best possible care.

The new technology is not only helping keep treatment in order -- new computer programs are also helping some doctors diagnose disease by drawing on research from around the world. But even the computer's strongest advocates caution it is no magic cure for "information overload."

"This is just another tool," says Dr. Robert Trelstad of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "It will only be as good as the content."

One of the heart patients at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital happens to be an expert on handling a lot of information. Betty Turock is the president of the American Library Association.

"I think I would rather have more information than less," Turock says. "And so long as the information is something I'm able to use ... I wouldn't be afraid of it."

Tomorrow's doctors are among some of the today's biggest fans of computers, as medical schools search for better ways to pass along knowledge. And more and more health care workers say computers are helping them tame ever-larger amounts of information.

Doctors w/ computer Yet many doctors say they feel overwhelmed when they go searching for information on-line. They complain of often getting more information than they want -- and not always in an easy-to-understand form.

Every aspect of patient care -- before, during and after a hospital stay -- now can be tracked by computer. But doctors say the very best medical care still involves that old- fashioned one-on-one relationship where doctor and patient have -- and take the time -- to communicate.

But many doctors say that kind of time-intensive care can continue only if a quick cure is found for medicine's information overload.

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