Living in the moment while being disconnected

February 1, 2009
Peter J. McDonnell, MD

He is director of The Wilmer Eye Institute, The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

Disconnecting from the worldwide electronic ophthalmic community and living in the moment, although a scary concept, can be done. And it can be enjoyable, especially with the right company.

Key Points

In this space a while ago, I mentioned being on the subway when a request for advice about a patient, the ophthalmologist's examination results, and the digital slit lamp photos all popped up on my BlackBerry. Feeling totally connected to the worldwide ophthalmic community, I reviewed everything and responded in minutes. Presumably it is just a matter of when, and not if, all medical records and images will be in electronic format and we'll be rendering second opinions easily from the other side of the world within minutes of receiving the request.

But a few days later the unthinkable happened. While on a trip to California to give a lecture and attend the USC-Stanford football game with my college sophomore daughter and some friends, I became disconnected. First the phone function went-no ring tone at all-and the only way I knew someone had called was a voice mail indicator. Then it refused to send e-mails. Finally, the screen went totally (and permanently) dark.

My disrespectful children make fun of me for my addiction to my handheld device. They make a big deal about my tendency to type e-mails and text messages while cruising down the highway at 65 mph. But they are worse than me. My personal and unscientific observation is that the tendency to be constantly phoning, texting, or e-mailing is typically age- and gender-dependent. Younger people in groups are always looking at their screens, and my daughter and her female friends do this much more than my son and his fraternity buddies.

With my device inoperative, I was forced to do something called "living in the moment." It was not so bad really, because I had a decent novel for the flight home, and I know some very interesting people who have always made me forget about checking my messages. After a couple of days, I was mostly through withdrawal. It took more than a week to replace the device, and when it finally arrived I resolved to try to be more judicious in how often I check it. And not to let it distract me when I am with people who are special to me.

On the other hand, technology (like the BlackBerry) promises to help us provide better care of our patients and to obtain more timely consultations for and from our fellow physicians. It may help reduce medical errors and provides numerous other benefits. And of course, no ophthalmologist would feel complete without access to his or her electronic version of Ophthalmology Times and the Ophthalmology Times podcasts from major meetings.

My replacement BlackBerry has a touch screen, is superfast, plays MP3s, has a navigation function, has better resolution, and does a lot of cool stuff the old one did not. But I will not let it control my life, and I will make sure not to use it constantly. Honest. I could stop whenever I want. Honest.

Disconnecting from the worldwide electronic ophthalmic community and living in the moment, although a scary concept, can be done. And it can be enjoyable, especially with the right company.

By Peter J. McDonnell, MD director of the Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, and chief medical editor of Ophthalmology Times.

He can be reached at 727 Maumenee Building,
600 N. Wolfe St., Baltimore, MD 21287-9278
Phone: 443/287-1511
Fax: 443/287-1514
E-mail: pmcdonn1@jhmi.edu

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