A good friend of mine from my previous life as a medico, Dr Casey Parker, now writes a deservedly popular blog about medical education for rural GPs. If you’re interested in GP education from a truly humanistic perspective, you should probably stop reading this and go and take a look at it now. Because Casey does much more good for the world than I do.
One of the recurrent topics on Casey’s blog is the problem of ‘overdiagnosis’. This is the near-ubiquitous tendency for doctors – in Western healthcare, at least, and especially in hospital settings – to defer making a diagnosis when a patient first presents with a problem. Instead, they order numerous investigations, which are sometimes invasive, often unnecessary, and almost always expensive.
This is generally done with the best intentions, I should add. Doctors are understandably concerned about missing something important. I know I was.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that many medicos run ‘routine’ batteries of tests rather than give much thought to which are really necessary – that is, those most likely to reveal the diagnosis and determine treatment.
Why do they order all these tests?
Because they can, that’s why.
In healthcare communications, there can be a similar temptation to think that more is necessarily better. That because so much information is available to us – clinical trial results and registry data and all the rest – we must use it.
Consequently, healthcare communications can end up resembling little more than data sets: cluttered, complicated assortments of figures and facts. But not all of this information is relevant, and much of it will have no effect on our audiences’ behaviour.
There is an adage in medicine, albeit often ignored, that you should only order a test if the result will influence your management of the patient. It’s a principle that might usefully be applied to what we choose to incorporate in healthcare communications.
Because over-complication is not simply a matter of lack of efficacy, as it were. Too much information is confusing. It leads to wild goose chases. After a while, people forget what the hell they were chasing in the first place.
The common problem here, I think, is a tendency to focus on information per se, rather than on the person who will – or just as likely will not – benefit from it. We are too often seduced by superfluity.
Or to put it another way, there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. As the British journalist Miles Kington once said: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
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