Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Where do junior doctors look things up?

A short time after my post on where medical students look things up, @drcolinmitchell tweeted about a paper on where junior doctors look things up.
Hughes, B., Joshi, I., Lemonde, H., & Wareham, J. (2009). Junior physician’s use of Web 2.0 for information seeking and medical education: A qualitative study International Journal of Medical Informatics DOI: 10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2009.04.008
I have to admit that when I first glanced at this paper I thought the methodology was good. There is talk of triangulation and inter-coder reliability etc. But when it is read more deeply much of it simply does not make sense because key concepts are so loosely defined. In the past few days I have seen this paper mentioned several times on twitter and in blogs, but there has been little or no mention of the poor quality of this study. Therefore I thought I should add my thoughts to the debate.


The study took place in the NHS in England. The subjects were junior doctors. 55 were identified through a stratified sample (of 10 different specialties) from 300 graduating from a London medical school. 50 of these agreed to participate but only 35 completed all three stages. More demographic data on the participants would have been useful.

Next, they were given a questionnaire, used in previous research on this topic, and asked to keep a diary over at least 5 days of every website they accessed for work. Finally each participant was interviewed although themes were saturated after 20 interviews.


From the survey data, 32 of 35 said they used web2.0 sites and of these 28 used wikis (read the content, only one doctor contributed to wikis). Next, looking at the diary data, confusingly, google.com is now referred to as web2.0 content, whilst in the survey it was not. 80% (28/35) of physicians used google during the five days. 25/35 reported using wikipedia. Smaller percentages used yahoo.com, doctors.net.uk and Facebook. This data is presented in chart form with percentages of physicians accessing each site (eg google, wikipedia, NICE). Presentation in tabular form with absolute numbers of accesses would have given more information.

The participants were asked to state for each of the 444 events where they accessed information online whether this was on a wed2.0 or user-generated content site, or hybrid, or traditional content site. The doctors said that on 235 occasions they were accessing web 2.0 content. However, the authors have classed the 142 uses of google and 115 uses of wikipedia (total 257) as web 2.0 content. No absolute numbers for the access of yahoo, facebook and doctors.net are given so the agreement between the authors and participants over what constitutes web 2.0 is not clear.

The authors then present themes from the interview data. Here "using the internet" is confusingly equated with web2.0 content. There is mention that doctors look things up online because it is easily accessible, and up to date, but at times they are uncertain about the quality or usefulness of the information found. The authors introduce a taxonomy of information needs from the interviews which they then use to analyse the information needs addressed inthe diaries, categorising 237 out of 444 internet accesses/information needs:
  1. "to solve an immediate defined problem" "to advance an immediate task in the clinical context and forms a closed question with a specific answer" "closed questions" 107 of total information needs, of which 90 addressed through use of "hybrid or best evidence tools" (these tools are not specified)
  2. "background reading on a subject" 130 information needs, of which 107 addressed through the use of "web 2.0"
It is not clear why 207 web accesses were not classified, or which sites were accessed in those diary entries.

Futher information is given on the way that doctors used google. 21 out of 35 mentioned using google as a way of navigating between trusted sites. It is not stated if these trusted sites were named in the diary.

There is then some discussion of how these (web 2.0) sites could be better used in clinical contexts. Doctors mentioned :
  • patient education- comment is made of patient use of wikipedia and need to educate patients on different sites
  • physician education- awareness of "web2.0 sites" as difficulty is in finding out about sites(wikipedia and google? or were they referring to some other web 2.0 sites? or to trusted web 1.0 sites?) , not much training necessary as sites so easy to use.
  • remove blocks to web2.0 sites - it is reported that google is blocked in

I am not commenting on the discussion of the paper because I found the method and results section quite perplexing. No clear definition of web 2.0 content is given. It is not clear why the use of google is considered use of web 2.0. As Mark Hawker has pointed out google is a web 1.0 application. (Data is indexed by computers and pulled by humans. The content is not in any way user-generated or social. ) Previous researchers such as Sandars and Schroter, who this paper cite, did not consider google to be a web 2.0 application.

Because the authors did not use a clear definition of web 2.0 content this work can tell us very little about doctors use of web 2.0 content. It is possible that most doctors are using the same trusted websites that they have always uesd. They use wikipedia because it is easily accessible (free and no passwords needed) and is equivalent to an online textbook. The user-generated content of Wikipedia is not a factor for most doctors. Credibility of user-generated content for physicians did not emerge as a theme in the qualitative work. Instead they were concerned about how patients might use the same websites that they use.

Overall, I found the study very disappointing. We need debate and discussion on how best to address the informational needs of clinical staff. To me, the best description of these needs still seems to be Richard Smith's BMJ review in 1996. Now we should be asking, have the information needs of doctors changed in the last 13 years? How are these needs best addressed by current technologies and what tools should we be trying to develop.

What do you think? Am I being too harsh? Why did you like this paper?

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