Saturday, January 09, 2016

Too Much Information?

If you ever walked down the hall of a hospital, you've encountered it first-hand.  It's called alarm fatigue, and it's that condition where nurses and doctors hear bizzzz or buzzzz so often that they tune it out.  That's because studies show that in units that have telemetry monitoring the average number of alarms per patient per day is 946. You read that right: nearly a thousand times per day the gear attached to a single individual sounds an alert that things are not "normal." But there's a big difference between not normal and something that requires action. In fact, experts estimate that between 86% and 99% of the time that those alarms sound no clinical intervention is actually needed.  The trick, of course, is figuring out which ones of those are important, and taking steps in those cases. Still, if you multiply those sorta-false positives by the number of patients on a given ward, you can see why those at the nurses' station all but shut their ears.

I thought of that as I was driving the other day. It wasn't any grand cross country trip, just a jaunt to the store to pick up a new garbage can for under the sink.  Still, I was wired the way we all are these days.  I had some music playing, my phone with a map program was attached to the windshield and my latest toy, a smartwatch, was on my wrist. I'm sure a pilot of a 777 has more data coming at her than I did, but maybe not by much.

All were connected together in a spider web of information, not to mention their own autonomous functions. The centerpiece of this hub, of course, is the phone, whose most pressing task at that moment was to show me routing information. The watch was doing its watch-thing with the time, but was also linked to the phone, displaying emails and texts that came in, as well as the weather.  Not to be left out, the car was playing DJ, its small flat screen displaying the album cover of the music currently playing, along with the artist and track title. It too had a brain of its own, an onboard computer which showed me gas consumption information, as well as time and temperature. And of course it was also connected to the phone, turning the car into a telephone booth on wheels.

Like a patient in a bed I was jacked into 3 devices.  But just as a pulse-oxy meter shows multiple parameters, my tech was also filling multiple rolls. So depending on how you count it, I had at least 8 different live data streams coming at me: directions, phone, text, email, weather, music, temperature and time.  Oh, yeah, and I was driving at 40 miles an hour down a road with stores, traffic lights, and other cars.  Almost forgot that little bit of stimuli.

We've all become fairly adept at juggling multiple inputs like this, some more than others.  That's not to say it's a good idea.  After all, some estimates are that fully 25% of all accidents are caused by distracted driving, whether it's texting, talking on a hands-free phone, selecting the latest hit on your media player or just rooting in the glovebox for a box of mints.  

So consider my case.  An email came in, so my left wrist started to vibrate. The outside road temperature dropped below freezing, so an alarm sounded from my dash. A call and a text came in, so my phone started to ring and buzz.  And this was just at the point where I had to go through an intersection that had 5 roads leading to it and about a dozen possible green light/red light/arrow combinations, complicated by a fire truck trying to get to an emergency. Not alarm fatigue, but alarm overload.  

I'd like to say I pulled over and turned everything off and left it that way.  I did not, but at least I pulled over. The email was nothing, the call was telemarketing and I zipped my jacket up a little tighter.  We always say "at least it's not brain surgery." But at least in the operating room everybody is focused on one thing.  Here, I was the one thing, and had to focus on all the others.  It gives TMI a whole new meaning.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't text and drive. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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