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In order to take command of your health, you must have access to information. Fortunately, the availability of information has been greatly enhanced by the advent of the Internet. In fact, many people attribute the existence of the modern e-patient to the Internet. Not only is information more available, but through social networking, other individuals with similar interests are more available. The vast array of communities of patients who share links and information online through e-mail, blogs, bulletin boards and other methods attests to this fact. But, are we being overwhelmed?

Many of us who use the Internet on a regular basis as part of our work, so-called knowledge workers, say “yes”. Clearly there is a down side to this seemingly unlimited data coming at us through multiple modes. In one study on the topic, the authors point out that ” beyond an optimum, more multitasking is associated with declining project completion rates and revenue”. Although the problem seems to get more attention in other business, there is growning awareness that it’s a problem in health care as well. With these sorts of studies proliferating, it’s not surprising that Google, Microsoft, Intel and others have formed a nonprofit organization specifically to study the impact of information overload on employees. Called the Information Overload Research Group, or IORG, it got me thinking about how information overload and using multiple modes of communication simultaneously might impact e-patients and participatory medicine

I’d like to propose that information overload is not only NO detriment to e-Patients, it is a driving force behind the e-Patient movement. Moreover, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that when we providers worry about our patients suffering from information overload, our worries are paternalistic and ultimately, not in our best interests. Here’s my reasoning. As health care providers, we try to attend to each of our patients as individuals, but are doing so in the context of a vast and growing stream of “evidence”, mostly based on populations and probabilities. We worry about information overload because we are the ones sufering from it. On the other hand, our e-Patients don’t have an unlimited number of health concerns, and can maintain focus on their own issues in a way that we can not. They network with each other, filter and prioritize information about their condition and it’s impact on them. They keep a watchful eye out for new developments and will usually see them before we do. All this, because their motivation is, put bluntly, much more focused on their health than ours can be. For these reasons, e-Patients are changing the doctors role, as has been discussed on this blog in detail. We should be working with them as partners or coaches, not as all-knowing experts. Although this won’t solve all our information overload problems, it’s a step in the right direction.