Docs struggle to keep up with the flood of new medical knowledge. Here’s advice


The amount of medical knowledge is said to double every 73 days, making it much tougher for physicians to identify innovative findings and newer guidelines for helping patients. Yet not keeping up with the latest information can put doctors at risk.

“Most doctors are feeling lost about keeping up to date,” said John P.A. Ioannidis, MD, professor of medicine at Stanford (Calif.) University School of Medicine. “The vast majority of new studies are either wrong or not useful, but physicians cannot sort out which are those studies.”

The sheer number of new studies may even force some doctors to retreat from areas where they have not kept up, said Stephen A. Martin, MD, professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts, Worcester. “When doctors don’t feel they can stay current, they may refer more cases to specialists or narrow their focus,” he said.

Some specialties have a greater challenge than others

Dr. Martin said the deluge of studies heavily impacts generalists because they have a wider field of information to keep up with. However, certain specialties like oncology are particularly flooded with new findings.

Specialties with the greatest number of published studies are reportedly oncology, cardiology, and neurology. A 2021 study found that the number of articles with the word “stroke” in them increased five times from 2000 to 2020. And investigative treatments targeting cancer nearly quadrupled just between 2010 and 2020.

What’s more, physicians spend a great deal of time sifting through studies that are ultimately useless. In a survey of internists by Univadis, which is part of WebMD/Medscape, 82% said that fewer than half of the studies they read actually had an impact on how they practice medicine.

“You often have to dig into an article and learn more about a finding before you now whether it’s useful,” Dr. Martin said. “And in the end, relatively few new findings are truly novel ones that are useful for patient care.”

So what can a physician do? First, find out what you don’t know

Looking for new findings needs to be carried out systematically, according to William B. Cutrer, MD, MEd, a pediatric intensivist who is associate dean for undergraduate medical education at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tenn.

“Before you start, you have to know what you don’t know, and that’s often not so easy,” he said. “You may get a spark about what you don’t know in an encounter with a patient or colleague or through patient outcomes data,” he said.

Dr. Martin, on the other hand, advocates a broad approach that involves finding out at least a little about everything in one’s field. “If you have a good base, you’re not starting from zero when you encounter a new clinical situation,” he said.

“The idea is that you don’t need to memorize most things, but you do need to know how to access them,” Dr. Martin said. “I memorize the things I do all the time, such as dosing or indicated testing, but I look up things that I don’t see that often and ones that have some complexity.”


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