Why Information Overload Leads Doctors to Make Worse Decisions—and What To Do About It

doctor overload

I recently had a chance to chat with several doctors on Knowledge to Practice’s editorial board about the challenges they are facing, and a common theme that emerged was their struggle with making the right decisions in the face of information overload. Whether or not you’ve heard this term, you’ve no doubt experienced it. Doctors are constantly bombarded with information—running more tests and collecting more data on patients than ever before, contending with constant EHR alerts, having the ability to Google anything at any minute, and facing an onslaught of medical literature that grows by the minute.

All of this information is supposed to make it easier for you to do your job, but in fact it does the exact opposite. The problem is that your brain can only focus on a few things at a time, so too much information creates a heavy cognitive load, eventually causing your brain to become completely overwhelmed. The more information you have, the worse the decisions you make, if you can even make one at all.

Information overload is a problem for everyone in both their personal and professional lives, regardless of what that profession is. However, since a big part of a doctor’s job is to make decisions based on the information available to them—and those decisions can determine if someone will live or die—the problem is particularly pronounced in healthcare.

Most of the articles on combating information overload offer either general time management techniques or technological solutions, but technology alone is not the answer. In fact, it’s part of the problem. For example, EHR alerts were intended to help physicians focus on particularly important information, but instead they happen so often that they are just becoming noise themselves.

My MPH courses thoroughly hammered the concept of “going upstream” (searching for the root cause of a problem so you can prevent it from occurring in the first place) into my brain. I would argue that there are two root causes here, one which doctors can’t control, and one which they can.

The first is the deluge of information you face. You might be able to turn some of this off, but then you risk missing out on vital data. The second is how much knowledge you bring to a situation before you make a decision. The more knowledge you already possess, and the more confident you are in your ability to make good decisions, the more precise you can be about the information you are seeking out and the less overwhelming the deluge will be.

This is where the concept of lifelong learning comes in. To continue to gain the knowledge you need to make the best decisions for your patients without becoming overloaded by information in the moment, you have to actively seek out educational activities that will result in learning and retention. You can certainly gain some of this knowledge organically, especially if you’re making an effort to regularly connect with peers both within and outside of your organization to talk through cases, but that isn’t enough.

Find opportunities for outside learning that are focused on the areas you deal with most often, that have the goal of changing patient outcomes, and that require active participation so you can’t zone out. Commit to making this a regular part of your routine and hopefully, as your knowledge and confidence grow, you can begin to tame the never-ending flow of information.

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