Editorial: The Illusion of Communication

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I recently returned to work from a week of fly fishing for bass (Yes, I tie my own flies.) and water sports with my family in Maine. My wife’s family has maintained a classic Maine fishing cabin in the lakes region for over a hundred years. Bathing and the bathroom still require a walk outside and the water comes direct from the lake. For me, it has been an important place to re-connect with family and decompress from work for almost twenty years. Over the years, I have noticed that the size of the bass caught increases with the fish story’s age, and my ability to ‘turn-off’ the office and my medical practice is increasingly less successful. Email, it seems, has penetrated not only the workplace as an indispensible tool for communication but just about every other aspect of modern human life.

Certainly the monumental impact of email on federal medicine is profound and in many aspects very positive. During my two deployments email was the preferred method of communication between family and me. Unlike other means of communication, email seemed impervious to the distances and conditions involved in communication from a warzone. I can attest that the business of managing casualties over large distances has been greatly facilitated by the communication advantages afforded by email. I depend on my email to manage my practice, keep in touch with colleagues, plan business trips, exchange documents, and connect with U.S. Medicine readers, among so many other important activities. It would be hard to imagine modern society without email.

Email does have a dark side though. Andrew Pratt in his Orange Journal (2006) article, Email overload in the workplace: A multi-dimensional exploration, sums up the seedy side of email with his statement, “Email is a way for anyone to beam information directly to us, whenever and from wherever they choose, whether it is welcome or not.” During our recent Maine vacation, my wife expressed concern over my daily hour (or two) scrub of office email and the response emails or phone calls this check would result in. While I was supposed to be relaxing, I could not get relaxed with the prospect of dealing with all those emails and issues when I got back, particularly since the email box I was checking was reserved for people that actually have important issues. I have other accounts for online shopping (an account that is so full of SPAM – non-solicited pornography and marketing – that it is the electronic cyber-equivalent of highway gridlock) and my military email account. Sadly, the ‘secure’ military email account is almost as useless as the shopping account due to the excess of worthless but time consuming administrative messages. The secure nature of military email precludes my checking this box (blessedly) away from the office, but this comes at a cost upon return. Following this trip, well over 200 messages were waiting to be read and sorted. About ten of the messages actually conveyed information that was needed or useful, the other 95% just contributed to the growing callus on my ‘delete’ finger. I often wonder, as I furiously bash the delete key in a hypnotic frenzy of email annihilation, what bits of information have I consigned to electronic hell that I actually needed? Of course, I will be reminded of these errors with an email asking, “Didn’t you get the email I sent?”

I also have growing concerns about the punitive use of email. As I wade through the seemingly endless ‘chaff’ of administrative military emails I occasionally encounter the insidious ‘return receipt’ request from the sender. Perhaps the sender just wants to ensure I have received this important bit of ‘administrivia’. More likely, it is destined to become a record of my habitual non-compliance. What about my responses to the many questions sent to me on a daily basis? Certainly the easy, ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘I’ll be there’ answers are safe and appropriate for email. My concern lies with the three page email that ends with, “So, what are your thoughts on this controversial, possibly career ending, issue?” Since I recognize nothing really ever dies on the internet and is available for everyone to see, I have developed a simple rule to deal with these emails. If my response requires more than four sentences, I pick up the phone and call. I figure what I have to say is not worth the wire tap, yet.

George Shaw could not have imagined how true his words would resonate in the modern world. Email is, without a doubt, a vital tool with many positive attributes that enhance the practice of federal medicine. Are we really communicating though or have we deluded ourselves into believing the illusion of effective communication with email? Perhaps we all would be better off making a few more phone calls or office visits when the topic is of real importance. I certainly do not have an answer to these email issues, though I think I will leave the email at work on my next trip to Maine and get back to telling bigger fish stories.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of U.S. Medicine, Marathon Medical Communications, Inc. or the United States government and its agencies.

U.S. Medicine welcomes comments from its readers. Address correspondence to editor@usmedicine.com or visit http://www.usmedicine.com.

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