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A Journey Through The Information Fog

by Jonathan Klein, MD

There`s a lot of information out there.

As an opening statement, especially written for a website that seeks to facilitate deep thought about an intense topic like cancer, that sentence is quite banal. But it’s a thought that crossed my mind the other night while perusing Twitter, cycling through various hits that came up when I searched for “cancer.”

I am a resident and I feel constantly bombarded with information. I just began my first ever resident-level rotation in my specialty of choice – radiation oncology – and often just don`t know where to begin. There is so much to learn and not enough time to learn it. I knew residency would be like this, but experiencing the situation first-hand can be overwhelming.

This situation is certainly not unique to medical residents: in the modern world, everyone is constantly hit with barrages of information. Commercial advertisments, hundreds of entertainment choices, dozens of professional news sources just a mouse-click away. But patients can feel this overload acutely – a cancer diagnosis is devastating emotionally, but that devastation is coupled to a constant stream of information about prognosis, treatment, logistics, and countless other decisions.

New data is created and disseminated with ever-increasing speed. Consequently, information is more available than ever before. Innovation breeds more innovation, so content providers constantly develop new platforms and delivery systems. With so many producers competing for limited consumers, any edge that makes your information more available must be sought.

Like any tools, the methods used to share information are neither intrinsically good nor bad. They are just things –neither benevolent nor evil, they simply are. Only when someone employs the tool to achieve an end can value judgments be made. Therefore, it is up to creators, advocates, and users to critically examine their tools and ensure that the best possible results are achieved.

Twitter is a great example. Its base functioning is extraordinarily simple: share an idea, an article, what you ate for dinner – any piece of information – using only 140 characters and put it out for anyone to read. As a point of reference, the very sentence you’re reading at the moment is just shy of one hundred and forty characters in length.  If brevity is the very soul of wit, then Twitter might just be the cyberspace Oscar Wilde. Twitter forces information producers (or disseminators) to distill their message down to only the most salient point. It forces the chaotic mass of information to be compressed and makes navigating through the morass a little easier. Sure, there is lots of room for spam messages and soliciting advertisement, which are ubiquitous on Twitter and elsewhere online, but the Twitter platform forces the intent of those messages to be clear from the beginning.

Unclear messages get muddied. Search Twitter for “cancer” and you’ll find just as many links and comments about astrology as about malignancy. Clearly defined goals are critical to efficiently finding relevant information. Searching for “cancer treatment” or “life after cancer” will yield much more relevant information, though also more narrow in focus.

Physicians should be more like Twitter. Physicians are, basically, a tool for delivering information. We spend years developing a knowledge base and clinical experience, and researching new treatment methods so that we can provide our patients with all the options so they can decide what is best for them. The process is not simply one of diagnose, press “Go,” and let the process run outside of our control.

The problem is, sometimes people see it that way. We constantly hear about communication lapses and patients who say that they lack the proper information to make informed choices. But the problem cannot be lack of information – all the information that anyone needs exists in some form. The issue is how the conduit between the existing information and the patient – that is, the physician – structures the information so that the patient can most easily sift through, select pertinent topics, and obtain reliable answers to their questions.

Physicians need to be succinct even when the information is complex, as with cancer treatment. Different teaching methods and styles need also be practiced and used so that patients can receive the information they need in a manner that will best help them understand.

The information that patients need is out there. The task of distilling reams of data into succinct patient-specific packages is difficult, so falling back on familiar methods can be automatic. But different patients learn and experience differently, and we need to be able to adapt quickly to meet each patient’s needs. We should work with institutions to create clear patient resources and distribute them through all available means – print, online, and person-to-person. Patients need to navigate huge amounts of data and it is our job to help find their own way through it, not just drag them along with us.

Proper communication does not only mean giving answers, it also requires providing it in the most appropriate manner. We should research and employ the most effective communication methods, and be vigilant to ensure that such methods are implemented. From the success of Twitter, we can understand the value of brevity, clarity, and interactivity in helping wade through piles of information.

We here at the Cancer Knowledge Network are developing interactive forums for patients, residents, and physicians to discuss their experiences and learn and develop new techniques to meet their needs in approaching cancer. We hope that you will help us learn the best ways to impart information for the benefit of everyone in the cancer care community in Canada and beyond.






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2 Responses to A Journey Through The Information Fog

  1. Victoria says:

    Brilliant article.
    Yes, communication….so very important.
    So I wonder if this is my short coming?…I’m not communicating well enough or perhaps communicating with the right people?.
    As a oncology esthetician ( yes they do exsist)I can’t seem to break any doors down to educate Dr.s or the head hancho’s of CA treatment centres and expalin what I can do to assist the cancer patient who has compromised sore, irritated, fragile skin,or painful lymphademia. I don’t get one ounce of time or an opportunity to communicate the benefits of a treatment from a stress releif stand point or any other stand point for that matter.

    communication styles and the information delivery is so very vital for CA patients. Those that are in the front of the line like our Dr.s should have a little bit more knowledge and interest of addtional services outside of their professional scope. If this actually happened the CA patient would be armed with more knowledge about other benefical services. This is not just the job of the hospital social worker.

  2. Jonathan says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Perhaps you could approach the head of the respective departments about giving a lunchtime rounds presentation or similar talk aimed at educating the other staff at your centre about the services you and others can provide.

    I must admit that I am unfamiliar with oncology esthetics and how they fit into the health care system – are you employed by a hospital or do you have an independent practice? Can you let me know a little bit more about where/how you practice?

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