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The digital world: Good or bad for MDs?

Views on whether digital connectivity has a positive or negative impact on physician health were evenly divided when physicians gathered in Calgary in mid-November for the third Canadian Conference on Physician Health (CCPH), and a lively and often humorous debate on the topic did not change their minds.

Electronic voting at the start of the debate showed that 52% of the almost 100 audience members felt such connectivity had a negative impact on health, and that proportion remained unchanged when the debate ended.

But whatever the impact digital connectivity has on individual health, dialogue surrounding the debate clearly demonstrated the new reality of such connectivity in medicine, as Twitter was used to involve participants from around the world in the discussion. A screen showed tweets as they were being posted, and participants included a physician at a McDonald's restaurant in Galway, Ireland, and another who was listening in while watching a Santa Claus parade.

The issue of how modern communications technologies can both benefit and challenge physician health was one of the major themes at the CCPH meeting, which is held every two years.

Opening plenary speaker Dr. Michael Myers, a psychiatrist who specializes in physician health issues, first raised the topic by noting that mobile devices and email can make it difficult for some physicians to maintain a balance between work and home life.

Dr. Marc Cherniwchan of Edmonton also touched on this topic in his discussion of the new "technological tribe" of physicians, pointing out that many new doctors are technologically savvy but lack social skills.

The debate featured Dr. Anna "The Luddite" Reid, a past president of the CMA, as well as University of British Columbia health technology expert Dr. Kendall Ho, resident Dr. David Ward and medical student Joshua Bezanson. Discussion was wide-ranging, and included references to the Borg from Star Trek and a digression involving the evils of using mobile devices while driving.

The main points made by Ho and Ward, who argued that digital connectivity is a positive development, were that such connectivity is now ubiquitous, and since patients are online seeking information, doctors have an obligation to connect with them. Reid and Bezanson countered by discussing the dehumanizing nature of new digital technologies and the persistent value of face-to-face communication.

Throughout the debate, which was chaired by Dr. David Topps of Calgary, audience members were polled on their attitudes toward digital technologies and their use of them.

While 61% of the audience felt it was always inappropriate to use mobile devices while dining with family or friends, there was still a significant minority who admitted to always having their mobile device in the bedroom while sleeping (35%).

In addition, the majority felt physicians did not have a responsibility to interact with their patients online or via social media, and 56% said they had no mobile apps designed to monitor their own health or fitness activities.

The majority of comments received on Twitter expressed positive views about the value of digital connectivity, while agreeing that such technology should not excessively intrude on physicians' personal time.

Over the course of the two-day meeting, almost 1000 Tweets were posted in the conference Twitter stream by 154 people, many of whom were not in Calgary.

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