Harry Brown: Are medical paper texts dead?

Harry Brown I don’t know about you but when I was a medical student I was brought up firmly on the side of paper. I went to lecture theatres and took notes on paper and referred to traditional medical textbooks and journals, usually having to physically go to a library and there was no computer in sight. I only graduated in the 1980s (well maybe that seems a long time ago to some!) and yet that scenario probably seems like an alien concept to many undergraduates and recent graduates now. Paper journals and medical textbooks are slowly being relegated to secondary use whilst their electronic equivalents are rapidly in the ascendancy. I personally rarely read the paper equivalent textbooks or journals now and tend to read on line offerings and I know that I am not alone. Our practice library is not commonly used now (replaced by on line visits by most staff) and cannot remember the last time I physically visited a medical library. Ten to fifteen years ago, I regularly visited our local postgraduate medical library – now I don’t go. Instead I regularly consult on line publications from the comfort of a computer at home or at work.

With the dawn of not only a new year but also of a new decade, pundits tend like to speculate about what technological shifts are imminently going to envelope us and one that seems to catch all the attention are the e-books and their e-readers.

One fascinating article I found was in the excellent annual prediction (this is the 24th) series from the Economist, The World in 2010. Specifically there is an excellent article on e-books and e-readers and the author of this article thinks that 2010 will be the year that these devices with their electronic books will become mainstream devices. In 2001, Apple launched the iPod and look what that did to the distribution and listening of music. This year is reputed to be the point in time when e-books suddenly become more mainstream. More powerful models, with better screens will probably become cheaper and hence will have more mass market appeal. As I write this article, Apple have just waded in with their new tablet device, the iPad, this too will host e-books, see here. When Apple enter the market place, everyone sits up and takes note.

One device that has caught my eye is Amazon’s Kindle 2 which is now available in the UK. It has built in connectivity which can download offerings from surprise, surprise Amazon. For an interesting review –read this. This article is accompanied by reviews of other e-readers and relevant news. Or if you want to check out a more exhaustive selection check out. Not surprisingly these e-readers use the same screen technology and guess what it is called? Yes it is e-ink and it seems to be very clever and only requires power to alter the screen image which of course is beneficial to prolonging battery life and reduce recharge cycles.

From a medical point of view, I am sure that in the not too distant future, we will be downloading medical journals, newspapers, magazines and of course books on to our e-readers. Just like what currently happens on the web, I am sure there will free editions and paid for editions and I am slowly being convinced that these devices will hasten the death of paper based, learning and on going education for the medical profession. In fact it would not surprise me that e-readers will converge with smartphones and MP3 players to form one device that will satisfy all our communication, reading and learning needs.  The opportunities that this will afford medical education and learning will be enormous. Of course there will be the risk of information overload and readers will have to be selective.

This is not a futuristic prediction for some years down the line, I think the revolution is happening now and it is gathering pace. Make sure you are on board and not left behind.

Harry Brown, general practitioner Leeds

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