“Digiphrenia”—Coping with Digital Information Overload

“Digiphrenia”—Coping with Digital Information Overload

Robert E. Fisher, MD

Sep 25, 2013

I am struck by the complex signals we now live with as each of us proceeds through our day of clinical, research, or administrative matters.

Daily, we navigate through a forest of information from our multiple emails, texts, tweets, phone messages, snail mail, and conversations with colleagues and staff, not discounting the same sources of information from our lives outside of this profession of ours.

This barrage on our attentive capacity reminds me of the recently coined term, “digiphrenia,” which has been popularized by author Douglas Rushkoff in his recent book, Present Shock. In brief, Mr. Rushkoff describes that we have created a world where we try to exist in more than one sphere, simultaneously and in parallel. In this digitally provoked mental condition, we live with myriad distractions that take our focus away from the immediacy of who we are with, and the purpose of that encounter.

Think of how common it is to see people at a restaurant table, brought together to create the social context of a meal together. How frequent it is now for those people to be distracted from their face-to-face communication, to focus instead on their smartphones or tablets, instead of living for the moment of that shared social experience. “We tend to exist in a distracted present, where forces on the periphery are magnified and those immediately before us are ignored.” I find the same information overload in the context of my daily oncology practice.

I am reminded of driving by a bicyclist the other day and noting that he had headphones on and was holding his smartphone with one hand, fumbling with his texting fingers as he rode down the street, holding the handle bars with the other hand. I am not certain that he glanced more than occasionally down the road in front of him. This cyclist epitomized, in the physical form, what life has become for many of us in an office environment.

We have allowed the digital world to invade the immediacy of our presence. I admit to the satisfaction myself, of reaching into my pocket to view my smartphone during a patient encounter when the patient was interrupted by an incoming phone call. “This will take just a second,” I thought to myself, “and I’ll be one more item through my morning of multi-tasking for certain!”

Having realized that technology has invaded our presence, I think the first step in coming to terms is recognizing that we must use these communication tools, not be used by them. I’ll try to step back, and be more focused in the day in front of me. We could all limit the emails/texts/posts/FB/skype/tweets to more controlled breaks in our worklives without the detriment of being “disconnected.” Can I still be a devoted and caring physician in the process? Let me check with my latest tweet/email/text/update/pathway and guideline to find out!


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Matthew S. Katz, MD

Sep, 25 2013 10:34 PM

Thank you for posting, Dr. Fisher.  The access to continuous information digitally is a boon and a curse.  Overload is a serious problem, both for clinicians and patients looking for useful health information online.  The other problem is our tendency to multitask, which in my opinion makes us less efficient and less able to focus on important things when we have to.  That said, I suffer from this condition as well.  It's hard to disconnect, and then push notifications that clog my email only makes it worse. My advice is to flip the hippies mantra "turn on, tune in, drop out" - instead it's good to sometimes "turn off, stay attuned, stay put".

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