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May 9, 2007 » 1:33 am

Medicine and Continuous Learning

Last month, after Creating Space in Baltimore, I decided to go up to Philadelphia to visit my friend, Ed. Ed’s a radiology resident at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. He was on call for one of the days of my trip, and he let me join him and observe.    (M8J)

http://farm1.static.flickr.com/248/459503759_52687c321c_m.jpg    (M8K)

Radiologists study medical images — X-rays, CT scans, etc. — and make diagnoses based on what they see. As you might imagine, the practice of radiology changes dramatically as technology progresses.    (M8L)

When they’re on call, radiologists camp out in a tiny, dark room surrounded by super high resolution computer monitors, tracking an ongoing stream of images from patients coming to the emergency room. They study the images and make diagnoses using voice recognition software. Occasionally, other doctors will come by and consult with the radiologists, but for the most part, it’s a lonely endeavour.    (M8M)

When I joined my friend, he was examining the scans of a young man who had been shot in the torso. It was a serious case, and Ed was examining different scans from all angles, speaking into his microphone in a language that was completely foreign to me. The kid was extremely lucky; no vitals were hit, and he was going to be okay, so Ed walked me through what he had done, deciphering the scans, explaining the workflow, and showing off his tools.    (M8N)

It was a fascinating and sobering experience. Doctors epitomize high-performance knowledge workers. The field is incredibly complex and is constantly changing. Moreover, the stakes are extremely high: people’s lives and livelihood. It requires years of training and practice, and the learning doesn’t stop when you graduate from school or complete your residencies.    (M8O)

As you can imagine, the language is extremely specialized. I had to stifle a laugh the first time I heard Ed speak in the microphone. It literally sounded like he was speaking in a different language, even though I was pretty sure he was speaking English.    (M8P)

Radiologists in particular use cutting-edge technology, and the technology is constantly changing. I was particularly impressed by the user interface for examining scans and by the workflow. There were some deficiencies in the software, and the voice recognition software in particular seemed disappointing. I thought that Ed could have typed his diagnoses in the time it took to review and correct the transcripts. One thing that helped a lot were reporting templates. Ed told me that some doctors literally had hundreds of templates for all sorts of situations, and that they saved a lot of time when used judiciously.    (M8Q)

I was particularly impressed by the amount of continous learning required to stay on top of the field. Not only is medical knowledge constantly progressing, but the tools are constantly changing. As a result, doctors are constantly studying. They may graduate from school, but the learning doesn’t seem to slow down much.    (M8R)

Medicine is a great model for what’s in store for other types of Knowledge Workers in this rapidly changing world. I know very few Knowledge Workers who spend as much time learning and honing their skills as doctors do. Can you imagine what we could accomplish in this world if we did?    (M8S)

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