April 1999 Bulletin

How to avoid drowning in e-mail

Keep messages short, deal with it promptly or put it in 'folders'

By Christopher W. Oliver, MD

Trauma and orthopaedic surgeons have only a limited daily amount of time to use the Internet and e-mail effectively. For beginners using new technologies, the enormous amount of data may be a "turn off" to developing a useful way of using the technology. It is so very easy to become information overloaded.

The reasons for information overload are due to:

Electronic mailing lists are particularly liable to create information overload. Orthopaedic surgeons who use mailing lists need to learn how to manage their own computer and use the appropriate software and hardware to handle messages effectively. Mailing lists may either:

E-mail lists may be improved by the users carefully considering their replies and only sending them after due consideration of their content and readership. Coping with the time it takes to answer e-mail is often learning how to "let go" and is often the most important factor when using mailing lists. E-mail is,

however, particularly useful in that it may be possible to contact people in organizations that you may not have normally had access to. For the person being accessed this may increase their workload. It is often useful to have two e-mail accounts, one for business and one for personal use.

My own policy for dealing with e-mail is to deal with it immediately. I choose to use "folders" in my e-mail to sift my mail automatically into subdivisions from known senders. I can deal with my folders at my leisure. The remaining mail in my inbox will be immediately deleted if they are irrelevant. I do not open messages that are not relevant to me. I immediately reply to messages if my answer is short or put it into a "tasks" folder to act on later. I do not procrastinate; I find it is better to be faster and more efficient to answer immediately and keep my inbox clear. It may be possible to prioritize and delegate especially where the surgeon has a secretary with a reasonable level of computer literacy. Strategies to help time management are:

Good practices when sending e-mail is:

New technologies are allowing seamless integration of e-mail, the Internet and the personal computer which should make information management easier and overload much less of a problem. Remember that with e-mail, organizations can become less hierarchical and the lines of communication open out. Recipients may, however, lack the necessary background information so always be clear and precise to avoid time-wasting misunderstandings.

Christopher W. Oliver, MD, FRCS (Orth) is consultant, trauma and orthopaedic surgeon, Edinburgh orthopaedic trauma unit, Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland.


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