Dr John Milton ~ Any port(al) in a (information) storm

Any port(al) in a (information) storm

“Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or (again) parties”. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University.

I like Taleb’s writing. ‘Maddeningly wise’ is how one reviewer proclaimed the Black Swan author’s recent short book The Bed of Procrustes. I therefore thought I would put his quip about news to the test. I used to be a news junkie; twenty four hour rolling news was made for me. But it is both so time-consuming, especially when so much isn’t actual ‘news’ (facts, whatever they are) but speculation and analysis, and so subject to editorial control in terms of what is deemed ‘newsworthy’. I decided that what I needed was another editorial filter, someone or something to cut out all the rubbish to allow me to peruse only the need-to-know (as Taleb says, assessing what news “matters”). Don’t worry, I’m not going all Chomsky ‘propaganda model’ on you at this point; read on.

And then I alighted on Twitter, something I had previously dismissed as a vanity project for media darlings. Using Twitter I now let the news ‘find’ me; if it is big enough I will hear about it through other users (the ‘cloud’ or ‘crowd’ sourcing approach as some see it). Of course this depends on using the right filters ie trustworthy sources as a kind of editorial control. It works though. I think I have saved myself at least an hour a day.

As a clinician I could be similarly overwhelmed with new information such as academic updates and clinical developments from journals. Having filters to control the information flow (other than a ‘head in the sand’ approach) has become a facet of professional development but who has the time to set these up and maintain them? In addition many clinicians now work in a portfolio style, across systems and sites with limited opportunities to meet up in the traditional lunchtime academic update format. To counter these problems there is a burgeoning industry of companies as well as some in-house health organisations promising and sometime providing knowledge management, access to the best evidence and ‘what your colleagues are reading’ type indicators. The holy grail is the provision of filtered ‘best’ knowledge (such as NICE guidelines, systematic reviews or even your local Trust’s policies) to the fingertips of both clinicians and patients, either as for example integrated clinical decision support tools in electronic patient records or at least having clinical knowledge resources in one easily accessible place, not dispersed across random intranet sites.

One idea we have thought about at the Institute of Mental Health in Nottingham is to have a ‘one stop’ website[1] capturing the ‘need-to-know’ information for our local mental health clinicians. It acts partly as a portal (read ‘filter’) to other sources, a quick way of on-line browsing of your usual sources (such as journals), as well as informing clinicians about other areas of indirect interest such as research or recent local talks or seminars. Ideally it offers macro and micro level learning, major updates but with local significance. Twitter increasingly has a role in this, often as re-tweets ie re-directed messages for rapid access to clinical and academic updates. What will make this initiative work though is the clinicians themselves, helping to identify the right filters, trustworthy sources to determine what matters to them and their patients. The clothes horse has been assembled; it just needs dressing. Over to you…..


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