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We all need an off-switch

The pressure is on for the medical profession to provide a service to a culture that exists through social networking.

Increasingly, doctors are turning to Skype and chat-room style consultations to satisfy the time-poor, information-hungry demographic. Whether we like it or not, tech literacy is on the agenda and we cannot ignore a society that is ‘always on’.

Or maybe therein lies the problem. Recently the consultants where I am working were each given a laptop linked to the hospital network to take home. The response to this new initiative was interesting: initially it was thought a benefit that doctors were more informed by access to results and X-ray reports when giving advice over the phone.

Unfortunately hospital email was now also easier to access, and people were expecting a response at all times, usually on a Sunday night, right before returning to work the following day. Who really wants to take their work email home?

A recent study has shown that with the near constant stream of text messages, emails, tweets, status updates and news feeds, we get interrupted on average every 11 minutes. How many of us get a box flashing up onto our screens every time we get an email – even during a consultation? The scary thing is, the same study showed that following an interruption it can take up to 25 minutes to regain full concentration.

Ask any junior doctor about the tyranny of holding a pager while on call and the compulsion to respond every time it alerts you.

It makes me wonder – why would we invite this sort of scenario onto ourselves?

FOMO (fear of missing out) is what the behavioural psychologists call this clever ploy from social media outlets. It allows a constant flow of information, so you don’t miss that important email or news story you and your friends are following.

I’m not sure there is much to be worried about, aside from the fact that this level of accessibility does not make an already busy day any easier. The issue is not whether all these things are useful – it is really about whether we can turn them off when we need to.

Dr Martin Wicks is a GPST1 in Bristol