Wisdom for Residents

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.

The Context

Today, one of the our attendings gave a solid overview of the major families of dementias. With the skills of a talented and effective instructor, he queried the audience of residents and students to help him fill out the content of a table designed to help differentiate between the presentations, test findings, and treatments for the different types of diseases. He was able to keep the audience actively engaged and participating, but at one point he asked a question that was met with silence. I volunteered the answer, and he turned to me, somewhat surprised that anyone knew the answer. I explained (that he shouldn’t be so impressed): he had mentioned the answer in a previous talk given several months ago, and I just happened to have a set of notes from that discussion open on my iPad which I was annotating and expanding with the lessons learned from today’s talk.

While it’s not so impressive that I was able to ascertain the answer, impressing someone was not the point for me: the fact is that I had that information and was able to quickly access it, even if it wasn’t readily accessible in my own brain’s memory bank without the assistance of my notes. This raises a major question for lifelong students of medicine: Is it better to try and store as much information in one’s memory as possible knowing that there will be limitations on the amount of information that can be remembered, or is it better to store some (perhaps a large proportion) of that information somewhere it can be easily and quickly referenced? If secondary storage of information is worthwhile, then should clinical information be trusted to a few easily-accessible resources (e.g. a pocketbook, online medical search database) or should it be digested and recorded into a personal notekeeping device (i.e. a notebook)? To approach these questions, we must first understand the nature of knowledge and how it is gained.

free your mind

The Student’s Dilemma

While we would like to think of knowledge learned as being the truth and that truth is an absolute, for better or worse the learning of medical knowledge is not this simple. Since medicine is based on scientific principles, there is a constant effort to strive for refinement of knowledge towards the best approximation of the truth, but in the mind of a humble scientist there is also the necessary acknowledgment that a better or more truthful explanation may arise to refute his or her prior claim. Simply stated, medical knowledge changes, evolves, and hopefully improves with the advance of medical science. Nonetheless, there is also the knowledge derived from practical experience (or story or wisdom) that enters the learner’s mind in the form of a “gospel” taught by more senior physicians. In many ways, this information is equally important and perhaps carries equal weight because this information is based on direct encounters with individual people that have the full force of a clinician’s mind reviewing the entirety of their unique cases. Nonetheless, something that is gospel must be preached (with strong language, without wavering, and lacking an acknowledgment of uncertainty), and one only has to preach when there are those who do not believe what is being said. In other words, truth does not need to be questioned, but this does not fit the description of anything in medicine. As such, physicians and patients alike must live and function with great uncertainty regarding what is known, what is not known, and whether or not what is “known” is actually meaningful (or “truthful” as charted against a constantly changing measure of what is true).

I will give an example here: I remember either a Neurology attending or fellow once explaining to me that the mild weakness found on ipsilateral limbs in a patient with a unilateral stroke could be explained by involvement of the fibers descending in the anterior corticospinal tract (which travels ipsilaterally and does not cross in the medulla). This descending fiber tract contains somewhere between 10-20% of the corticospinal tract fibers, varies in size between individuals, ends in the thoracic cord, and likely provides innervation to muscles of the neck and upper limbs. Anatomically, this explanation seems to make some sense. I asked another senior Neurology attending this question in a different patient with a similar presentation, and he stated definitively, “It never happens.” In perusing various Neurology textbooks, I cannot find any information corroborating the first explanation. The traditional textbook that most clearly addresses this question, Neurology: A Queen Square Textbook”, states “Of corticospinal fibers, 10% remain uncrossed, their neurones of origin outlining an ipsilateral somatotopic map, a point of little apparent clinical significance.” Why then, does this fiber tract even exist? There are some studies that suggest that the presence of this “accessory” pathway may aid motor recovery from lateral corticospinal tract damage as in stroke [1] or spinal cord injury [2].

A common response among learners to these conflicting messages is to give up. The tendency is to lose faith in attempting to achieve the ability to “know.” Accordingly, many choose to defer to those who do “know,” or at least believe they do. The appeal of following guidelines stems from this tendency: in theory, a panel of “experts” have pooled together their knowledge and provided recommendations to follow. In this climate of uncertainty, most people choose to follow. But what makes the experts “experts” in their fields? Often they are the physicians, scientists, or physician-scientists who are pursuing active research or have extensive experience with a particular clinical issue. At best, they are driven in their desire to know by the awareness of the incompleteness and changing nature of knowledge and also by the idealistic hope that it is possible to improve knowledge and thus improve the practice of medicine. Ideally, they additionally generate new evidence to contribute to the current knowledge of disease and treatment in the form of clinical trials, updated reviews, case series, and more. At worst, they may be the ones who are simply preaching the loudest and most forcibly.

I, and many others, would argue that this method of learning and practicing medicine is too passive and not sufficiently adaptive. Consulting (to the exclusion of other sources) searchable databases such as UpToDate potentially leaves one’s mind at the mercy of a few opinionated authors. It is not enough to practice medicine as directed by the Cochrane reviews alone. It is no longer enough to practice medicine based only on the anecdotal and experiential wisdom passed down by prior generations of physicians. And it is largely impractical for any individual physician to stay abreast of the latest developments in every field of medicine, let alone in his or her own field with regards to the numerous studies being published every week. Not surprisingly, it is important, then, to find a balance between all of these sources and types of information and information acquisition.

The Notebook

In my opinion, a notebook is the most essential piece of a physician’s armamentarium. It is more important than the stethoscope, scalpel, or any other tool. Why? The notebook represents a projection of the physician’s mind, and no matter the specialty, the physician’s mind is still his or her greatest asset and most effective tool in treating patients. The notebook serves a number of important roles for the physician:

[1] Facilitation of memory encoding

A lot of educational theory and research is based on the many ways different individuals learn, particularly with regards to methods emphasizing visual, auditory, and tactile sensation. Incorporating multiple modalities, such as writing notes while listening to a lecture and watching a slide presentation, is thought to improve memory retention. Accordingly, it helps to write down what is learned, whether on the wards, at the white board, during morning report or noon conferences, or at grand rounds or conventions, as this should help you more firmly implant the knowledge into your hippocampi.

[2] A database of references and the knowledge “family tree” (e.g. lineage)

Because of its origins and the way knowledge works within medicine, the lineage of knowledge remains an important distinction that marks one’s identity as a physician. Since much of medical teaching is based on the experiences of physicians whose careers may last half a dozen or more decades, one’s teachers inspire considerable reverence from the trainees who follow them. However, physicians may encounter several “schools of thought” throughout different stages of training and may find that their own minds are battlegrounds between competing ideologies. Accordingly, I find that it is very important to chart and document from whom one learns a new tenet of medicine (be it a resident, fellow, senior attending, clinical trial, visiting lecturer, clinical trial, review article, textbook, etc.). In the aforementioned example, I cannot remember who asserted to me the notion that damage to the anterior corticospinal tract can result in ipsilateral weakness. As such, I cannot ask him or her how that knowledge was obtained, and it thus holds little water against the assertion of the other attending or my current review of the available literature. If you keep track of your learning and keep references to your sources (e.g. the name of a physician who gave a lecture), it is possible to track how your thinking and understanding of the field evolves over time, particularly when new data is incorporated from new studies or encounters with physicians trained in another school of thought.

[3] A launchpad for inquiry

Sometimes the hardest thing to remember is a question. And yet, as physicians, questions arise in our minds constantly: much of our role as clinicians mimics the modus operandi of the detective. Furthermore, the ingrained abundance of intellectual curiosity is one of the distinguishing features that differentiates physicians from other health care providers. Nonetheless, our attention is also constantly bombarded by numerous competing interests (pages, e-mail messages, patients and families, other care providers, etc.). There are countless times that I had a question I wanted to ask someone giving a talk which vaporized prior to the talk ending and also numerous occasions when I identified something I wanted to look up which I later forgot about. In order to help further develop your own knowledge base, improve the care of your patients, and perhaps even generate questions that might advance the field as a whole, it helps to write down the questions that come to mind as soon as they arise. This can help identify knowledge areas that you can expand and enrichen, detect problems in your clinical practice that might be useful to address (e.g. Why isn’t there a standardized protocol for (blank) here?), and develop potential ideas for research.

[4] A map of the mind

Last but not least, the notebook can serve as a measure and organizational tool for the knowledge one has already acquired. Keeping one’s thoughts and memories organized is a very important precursor to developing an easily and quickly accessible knowledge bank. The primary objective is to make your brain an efficient and effective database of knowledge and to use that knowledge to guide actions (e.g. the practice of medicine) in a meaningful way. The notebook should not serve as a replacement for the mind’s memory stores, but rather, it should serve as a visual aid (to trigger memories of learning from direct visualization and also to help guide a mind-only “memory palace”-style search if the notebook is absent) and as a hierarchical “site map” or “table of contents” that helps you keep track of what you know so far and what you don’t know.

I hope I have at least begun to convince you that the notebook and the active engaging and recording of lessons learned are essential for physicians at all levels of training. In my next installment of this series (The Battle for Your Mind), I will discuss different methods modern physcians can use to keep notebooks.

1. Shelton, F, and Reding, MJ. “Effect of Lesion Location on Upper Limb Motor Recovery After Stroke.” Stroke. 2001; 32: 107-112.
2. Priestly, JV. “Promoting anatomical plasticity and recovery of function after traumatic injury to the central or peripheral nervous system.” Brain (2007) 130 (4): 895-897.

Anomia is the inability to generate the name of an object or item presented to a patient. Confrontational naming is often tested as a standard portion of the neurologic examination of mental status. While there are several standardized tools for testing of naming ability (such as the Boston Naming Test and the NIH Stroke Scale naming cards), many Neurologists and other practitioners use readily available everyday objects to test patients at the bedside or in the office. There is a distinction made between “high frequency” and “low frequency” names; individuals with naming ability will lose the ability to identify low frequency objects first, meeting criteria for a “mild anomia” which may indicate a degree of subtle cognitive deficit.

The two objects I have seen physicians use most often at the bedside are wrist watches and pens (followed by eye glasses for those who wear them). The physician will first start by asking the patient to identify the entire object (e.g. watch, pen) and then ask them to identify specific parts. However, not surprisingly, there is considerable variation in the design of watches (especially between analog and digital watches) and pens (spring-loaded pens versus capped pens), and there is likely some variability in cultural knowledge regarding the ability to identify the “low frequency” components of each.

However, sometimes even physicians will make mistakes in identifying the individual parts of each object! If you plan to use either object for testing naming, use the following as a guide:

Watches (analog)
Physicians are more likely to wear analog wrist watches which are seen as more professional than digital watches (which typically are worn by children or for sport situations). I focus on analog watches here.

Band – also known as the bracelet or strap, this is a high frequency component that is used to secure the watch to the wrist

Face – medium to high frequency component, the part of the watch with the numbers and markers. The surface under the watch hands is called the dial.

Hands – medium to high frequency component, the linear bars that turn and point toward the individual numbers which are used to designate the current time

Marker – low frequency, the design element that designates time intervals (five minute intervals, fifteen minute intervals, hours), often a small dot or line

Crown – low frequency, the cap on the side of the watch that is pulled up in order to alter the date wheel or time setting. The cap sits atop the stem and tube.

Stem and Tube – very low frequency, invisible when the watch is in a normal functioning position. This component sits under the crown and is only visible when the crown is pulled outwards. This connects to the internal mechanisms that adjust the date wheel and time.

Crystal – low frequency, the clear covering sitting above the face of the watch.

Bezel – low frequency, the outer ring with indentations or numbers that count or providing markings from 0 to 60. The bezel holds the crystal in place and also provides a time reference for divers to help them determine how much air remains in their tanks. There is considerable variation in bezel designs which are sometime fixed or they can rotate clockwise, counterclockwise, or both.

Date Wheel – low frequency, an indicator for the date of the month. Sometimes the date wheel window will have a magnifying lens above it called the cyclops.

Lug – very low frequency, the metal pieces that project from the main body of the watch and secure it to the band (specifically, the band end piece)

Case – also known as the casing, low frequency, the back of the watch which is lifted off to access the internal workings of the watch and battery compartment. The casing sometimes will have the model and serial number listings (if not located on the lug).

There are many different pens used by physicians, the most complicated being fountain pens which have dozens of components (nibs, cylinders, ferrules, feeds, levers, derbies, screw rings, press bars, sacs, etc.). However, considering how often pens are lost and “borrowed,” most probably rely on a steady supply of cheap, disposable pens. For simplicity, I’ll demonstrate names with a push-button pen here.

Point – also known as the tip, high frequency, the part of the pen through which ink is delivered to the page

Clip – medium to high frequency, the part of the some pens that will hold the pen in place in a (white) coat pocket

Barrel – low frequency, the main body of the pen (with many different names depending on the type of pen)

Push Button – medium to low frequency, the part of the pen that is pressed to exposed the point

Joint – low frequency, the part between the upper and lower halves of the body of the pen which connects them

Since most physicians are unlikely to deconstruct their pens at the bedside, I won’t describe the thrust tube or ink cartridge.


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