ACR Bulletin

Covering topics relevant to the practice of radiology

Battling Information Overload

How can radiologists achieve work-life balance amid the never-ending flow of updates?
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There is a constant need to stay informed because our field is on the forefront of technological advances, and we have to stay abreast of those changing technologies.

—Courtney M. Tomblinson, MD
December 14, 2018

PHOTO CAPTION: Courtney M. Tomblison, MD, reviews 3D printed coronal images of a patient’s face and sinuses during her diagnostic radiology residency at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. 

Information has never been more accessible. Between conferences, medical journals, and social media, radiologists can find the newest research and start a dialogue with others in the field almost instantly. However, the pressure to stay perpetually up to date can have insidious consequences for radiologists attempting to balance the never-ending stream of technological advancements, their daily work, and their personal wellbeing. The term information overload, coined in 1971 by the writer Alvin Toffler, refers to a state of mental exhaustion, impaired decision-making, and dulled cognition that is a result of a constant influx of information. In a field as complex as radiology, the abundance of information and the expectations to stay abreast of clinical, policy, and practice management updates can sometimes prove counter-productive to quality patient care and radiologist well-being.

With every technological advance, the everyday realities of a radiologist’s work change. “There is a constant need to stay informed because our field is on the forefront of technological advances, and we have to stay abreast of those changing technologies,” says Courtney M. Tomblinson, MD, neuroradiology fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. “It can be challenging when every day there is a new machine or technique or imaging sequence.”

Before the advent of PACS, reports were typed from scratch, signed, and taken to the referring physician by hand. As advancements have shortened report turnaround times, this technology also brings an expectation of timeliness from referring physicians that does not always take into account the human behind the machine. As radiologists point out, immediate responsiveness is not always possible or preferred. “If you feel you have to get everything done right away, you are going to live in a state of unease and discomfort,” says Richard B. Gunderman, MD, PhD, FACR, chancellor’s professor of radiology at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

While we may have added a lot more resources vying for our attention we still only have a limited number of hours in the day, so it’s placing a premium on our ability to discern what is really worth knowing.

—Richard B. Gunderman, MD, PhD, FACR

On top of the stress these expectations impose on the radiologist, they also may lead to subpar reports. “Quicker turnaround doesn’t always equate to a quality report,” says Kerri Vincenti MD, chief radiology resident at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. “If a referring physician has a specific question about a time-sensitive report, it is not unreasonable to ask a radiologist to take a look, but they have to understand that there are limitations.”

In addition to the advancing technologies within the radiology field itself, the changing digital landscape at large has meant that discussions are shifting to social media platforms. Social media has completely changed the way information is disseminated. Now that texts, emails, and social media notifications follow many radiologists home, it is even more critical to make informed choices about the return on investment associated with each information input.

“I do think that one of the contributors to burnout is the sense that ‘I am paddling as fast as I can and getting farther and farther behind, that I am just drowning in a sea of information,’” says Gunderman. “While we may have added a lot more resources vying for our attention we still only have a limited number of hours in the day, so it’s placing a premium on our ability to discern what is really worth knowing.”

Whether it is a monitor or a cell phone screen, radiologists are interacting with technology day in and day out. Although these are critical elements of the job, there are few substitutes for face-to-face interaction with peers when it comes to fostering a positive work experience. “In the information age, we think our most important sources of knowledge are our smart phones or access to the Internet,” says Gunderman. “In fact, what we need more than ever are good mentors, good professional role models, and good educators.”