The Battle for Your Mind: How to Keep a Notebook as a Physician

In the first installment of this series, I discussed the challenges faced by those learning the art and science of medicine, which is to say, everyone (or at least, everyone who is still willing to learn and adapt to the growth and evolution of knowledge in medicine). It is the uncertainty and the complex mechanism by which knowledge changes that necessitate that physicians actively organize and seize control of the ways they learn. Additionally, medicine is a high stakes endeavor, one in which accuracy and precision of information are paramount, and one in which a common mantra is “trust no one.” As such, individual physicians need to establish a fulcrum across which to balance different sources of information and learning. The fulcrum, in my opinion, is the physician’s notebook.

What do I mean by “notebook?” The notebook can be any means by which a student, resident, fellow or attending organizes his or her thoughts. In most cases, this is a written medium which will allow the user to either write, draw, or type information as a means of immediately aiding the storage of memory in the brain and providing a visual map by which to trigger the accessing of memories. This medium should be portable and easily accessible or it won’t be used. Finally, the notebook should be expandable, as the duration of time during which a physician must learn is limited only by lifespan (unlike a notebook used in grade school or college for a specific course). Here, I describe three potential methods that one might use to seize control of one’s learning.

The Moleskine aka “Token of Nostalgia”

The most common method that physicians use to take notes are physical notebooks. These are typically small enough to fit into the breast pocket of a physician’s white coat, often the only pocket with a standardized size across various white coat brands (the side pockets vary greatly in size). In my imagination, the “Golden Age of Medicine” is populated primarily by well-groomed, male physicians who mostly look like Don Draper except that some have more white hair and most are alternating between business suits or long white coats. Nestled somewhere between the penlight and fountain pen rests the Moleskine, a thin leather bound notebook. The company that has the trademark for the name Moleskine has advertised this little notebook as being so much more: in describing the many famous and brilliant people who have jotted down ideas and drawings on its pages, the Moleskine is somehow supposed to inspire brilliance in the rest of us. This notebook fits so well with the traditional culture of reverence and nostalgia within Medicine that it is found in most if not all medical school bookstores.

These little books are useful for their portability and easy accessibility. Furthermore, they require only a pen and (at least) legible penmanship. Notebooks are generally cheap, though the premium brand-name Moleskines usually cost $8-12 each (varies based on size and merchant). Of all the methods of taking notes, this one requires the least amount of startup time. However, all pen-and-paper solutions have serious disadvantages. Perhaps the most prominent is expandability: all paper notebooks are limited by the number of pages available, which means that the notebook will at some point reach its maximum capacity and become a static entity. In this situation, it remains a useful resource for referencing and memory augmentation, but it no longer has the ability to help one grow one’s knowledge base or chart that growth. Furthermore, notebooks require good handwriting: most physicians have atrophic penmanship which is worsened by fatigue and the prevalance of electronic medical records. Paper notebooks also require exceptional planning skills in laying out an effective organizational scheme prior to starting the notebook, otherwise accessing information in the notebook becomes an exercise in random searching. Lastly, if lost or misplaced, a paper notebook is gone forever and cannot be easily replaced.

Personal Experience: Throughout medical school, I used Moleskine notebooks to take notes and by the end went through at least three. I was frustrated by the lack of growth capacity. Accordingly, an alternate solution I tried revolved around the “Pocket Medicine” series: the portable book is actually a small binder, and a few stationary stores actually carried extra lined paper inserts that matched the size of the printed pages. I thought this was an elegant solution as it allowed me to take notes and “insert” my knowledge into the handbook. Over time, this expansion capacity was still not enough, and my fear of losing the notebook prompted me to seek out other solutions.

The iNotebook aka “A walk in the clouds”

As iPads and iPhones (and to a lesser but still considerable degree, other tablet computers and Android phones) become ubiquitous throughout the physician population, the possibility for new electronic methods of notetaking grows exponentionally. When I was a third year medical student, iPhones and iPod touches were still uncommon, and pulling out one of these iDevices in front of an attending on rounds was still considered rude and taboo. However, there is now a well-developed ecosystem of medical apps and resources available for these devices that make them useful for information acquisition in the clinical setting. While there are still some concerns regarding the ability of electronic devices to distract physicians from clinical care duties, the overwhelming momentum is towards the acceptance and adoption of portable technologies into medical practice. Furthermore, medical schools and residencies have discovered educational and clinical training value found in these devices, or at least they are willing to invest money to buy these devices for their students and residents with the expectation of educational potential.

With regards to serving as “notebooks,” the iPad and iPhone, particularly as a pair, are a potent combination. In addition to providing storage and reading capacity for electronic textbooks and papers from research journals (think of the numerous e-mails one receives everyday with an attachment to some review or study), the iPad additionally services as an effective content creation device with the appropriate peripherals. Many people find it difficult to use the glass keyboards of Apple’s devices, and few would argue that typing performance on the glass keyboard can match a physical keyboard. Accordingly, a Bluetooth keyboard is an essential add-on, and numerous elegant solutions have been developed including the Clam Case and Logitech’s Keyboard Folios (solar and standard), most typically increasing the overall investment by $80-150. With these keyboards, the iPad effectively becomes a “netbook”: a laptop with a slightly smaller keyboard (which might impeded some people with big hands), smaller hard drive, and longer battery life. However, the iPad is much more effective than a true netbook because it does not have the startup latency of laptops: most if not all of the tablet computers activate within fractions of a second and can allow one to start typing seconds later. In addition to allowing rapid access to a typing interface, many apps on the iPad and other tablets allow for alternative forms of note-taking: drawing with a finger or stylus, a mixture of drawing and typing in flow charts, and recording audio.

Unlike paper notebooks, notetaking on a tablet computer can be organized and reorganized in a much more malleable fashion. The initial planning stage is less important because information can be readily modified and moved, a feature not present in paper notebooks (there is no readily accessible “copy-paste” feature in the analog world). Simple text editors allow for the creation of innumerable text files, while more complex cloud-based notetaking programs often include content search capabilities, tagging (by keywords), and nesting of files within folders.

Where does the smartphone fit into this? If the smartphone uses the same operating system as the tablet computer, often shared applications can also share data, particularly if one uses a cloud-based storage solution such as Dropbox, iCloud, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, or Google Drive. Accordingly, if one doesn’t have the tablet available (or have the time to pull it out), one can still access all of the same files on the smaller screen of the smartphone (which most people will carry around all the time). This reduces the time required to access notes and more closely approximates the time it would take to flip through the pages of a paper notebook.

There are disadvantages to the tablet computer-smartphone solution as well. First, this solution is expensive: both tablet computers and smart phones cost hundreds of dollars (an iPad, iPhone, and Bluetooth keyboard will probably cost the user about $1000, not including the monthly service fees for the iPhone). Secondly, the data input is reliant on the larger device: typing on an iPad Bluetooth keyboard for the average computer user is likely to be nearly as fast as on a full-sized keyboard, but this requires that the user have a flat surface on which to rest the device. Practically, this means that the user needs to be seated or standing at a counter, such as at a nursing station or using the height-adjustable table at a patient’s bedside. This also means that the user needs to carry both the iPad and keyboard with him or her into the clinical setting. While there are some people who have modified white coats to include iPad-sized pockets, this may not be the most comfortable solution. For physicians that normally carry brief cases or shoulder bags (e.g. Neurologists), carrying a tablet is not an issue. Thirdly, this solution is energy-based, so battery life becomes a consideration. However, iPads and iPad-compatible Bluetooth keyboards generally have exceptionally long battery lives.

Personal Experience: This is the solution that I use at this time, and quoting the late Steve Jobs, “It just works.” I use a Clam Case with my iPad 2 to type my notes. I carry the iPad in a Fossil city bag which fits both the iPad as well as my various diagnostic tools in a non-bulky fashion. I use DropBox as my cloud-based storage solution with Elements as my simple text editor for notes (which is fast, has folders for organization, and keeps my files accessible instantly without an Internet connection on my iPhone, iPad, computer, and on the web on the Dropbox site). I use Papers for handling journal articles, iAnnotate for other PDFs, and Kindle and the iBooks apps for medical textbooks. I generally pull out my iPad/Clam Case during conferences and lectures to take notes, and when I’m on clinical duty and need to check something I pull out my iPhone to quickly access the notes. In my case, the additional weight of the devices is justified by the iPad’s additional uses on the wards and in the clinic: I also use my iPad/Clam Case for writing progress, admission, consultation and clinic notes, and while rounding it is additionally useful for placing orders and checking labs and imaging test results. A laptop, even a small one, would be more cumbersome for the ward-specific tasks (placing orders, checking the electronic medical record while standing/walking), and most do not have the equivalent battery life or short activation latency.

Of note, there are a variety of other methods of using a smartphone and a tablet. There are several cloud-based note taking services such as Evernote, Notability, SimpleNote, etc. For me, I wanted a service that would allow me to access some version of my notes off-line on any device, so a DropBox based solution was the best for me.

The Collaborative Notebook aka “WikiMedicine”

One idea that I have reencountered is the collaborative notebook. That is, a centralized website where several individuals within a field can post and edit files or pages and pool together a considerable amount of knowledge and learning. One example of this that was recently presented to me is, a wiki-style site that serves as a resource and quick reference for hematologist-oncologists. On the site, one can find chemotherapy protocols, comparison charts between various medications, and references to the primary literature used to guide the design of protocols and selection of medications. This is one such example of a free, non-subscription based site that can be created by physicians for physicians for the storage, growth and dissemination of practical knowledge.

One major advantage of this model is that knowledge can grow rapidly when it is shared. The collaborative effort brings together information much more quickly as each individual is contributing information and is exposed to a different set of patients, different literature, and different perspectives. Another advantage for a web-based solution is that the information can be accessed and modified on a variety of platforms, including on the computers in a clinic or hospital as well as on personal devices such as smartphonese, tablets, laptops, etc. This information can sometimes be automatically backed up to a physical hard drive so that it is not only living in the Internet ecosystem.

This type of model also has unique challenges. Collaborative sites by necessity require more moderation in order to monitor and regulate quality of information. Web-based solutions require an Internet connection which surprisingly can be hard to find in the wireless dead zones of various hospitals and medical schools. Also, websites sometimes require hosting fees and sometimes minimal knowledge of programming (or at least managing basic website types such as wikis and weblogs).


These are only a few methods by which one can keep a notebook as a physician. Regardless of one’s choice, the main objective is to help one take control of one’s learning and the shaping of one’s mind as a complex diagnostic system. This is an important step towards gaining more autonomy as an individual clinician and more effectiveness in treating one’s patients.


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