You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Friday, December 3, 2010

Health Information Overload

This week I attended a workshop to learn about EndNote, a software program designed to help with library research and citation management.  With EndNote you can search the world wide web for journal articles, books, and web-site based materials.  In the case of journal articles, those articles that are available electronically in full text can be downloaded onto your computer for future reference.  Once references are located, the software will capture the citation and incorporate it automatically into a new document, and will configure the citation into the reference style you are using, such as the American Psychological Association format; there is also a provision to automatically convert the reference style into the preference of hundreds of specific periodicals.  Truly an amazing tool.  My context is the memory of undergraduate days when we would spend a lot of time in the stacks of a library, writing notes and citations on index cards.  That sounds like the stone age by comparison.

As I was learning all the various functions of EndNote I was impressed again with the mind-boggling volume of intellectual material published every year.  Like all disciplines guided by science and research, health promotion tries to keep up with the latest consensus on effective practice.  That means being sure that we are promoting the most accurate health science information, but also that we are applying skills and techniques with the strongest evidence for effectiveness.  This is not new.  It is just that the volume of new information is expanding so quickly that few people can really keep up.  This is true for consumers, as well as front-line practitioners, and finally academics and researchers.  I spend at least half my workday in front of a computer, so that I have almost constant access to information sources.  I can't keep up, except in a few very narrow areas.  The pratitioners and consumers have almost no chance.

So what we have is a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, the accumulated knowledge is certainly far more than ever before, but the gap between what is actually known (somewhere, by someone) and what is put into practice by others is perhaps also greater than ever.  Since our capacity to learn is not growing, and the speed with which our brains can process information has not changed, solutions to this dilemma must come from the production and dissemination side.  EndNote is an example of something that can deliver more information faster and more efficiently, but I still have to find time to read those articles!

Somewhere in the future, we can hope there will be technological advances to couple our brain functions with new tools that can actually speed up the process of absorbing and synthesizing the flow of information.  Perhaps there is a way to break the mass of new information into new "cognition units," something other than traditional language-based words and sentences.  Maybe there will be ways to more efficiently filter the information that comes to us.  Professional journals are supposed to do that, but they are swamped by the tidal wave of scholarship being produced.  Magazines also serve a filter function, but the filtering used by the editors may be biased for commercial reasons.

For now, I have to live with the uneasiness that the graduates I proudly escort into careers will most likely fall farther and farther behind once they leave the university resources behind and have to function based on the tools they have and what seems right in the moment.  I'm hoping that the research enterprise will increasingly concentrate on dissemination, not just pumping out new science content information.  Perhaps social media will have a role in this, beyond the current focus on chatting about relationships and life's trivia.    There are giant leaps waiting to be taken.

1 comment:

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