Public Health

Reading matters, sad news and uplifting messages

June 17, 2008

Reading matters

In the last week, I’ve read some interesting pieces in The New York Times and Atlantic about email and the internet. Last week, the Saturday NYT carried a story about a convergence in thinking among some big companies that now recognize that email is both a blessing and a curse and are trying to find a way out of the conundrum. They’ve done some interesting experiments which show that when people restrict their email to certain times of the day, in other words, when they exert control over their email, they appear to be more productive. It’ll be important for us to follow emerging best practices in this area. As readers know, I am concerned increasingly that my own productivity, at least, has suffered in the last year as a consequence of mounting email, much of it spam that is not immediately recognizable as such.

A related story in Atlantic asks whether Google is making us stupid. The hypothesis is that we are spending more time on the internet using Google and less time reading. This has important relevance for how we teach and learn, but it also has implications not just for our professional development but our leisure activities as well. I confess that my own book reading has declined over the last few years. At first, I attributed it to work overload, eye strain, late work nights and early morning workouts. But I noticed that all the explanations I give are similar to ones reported in national studies about reading. Right now, I am reading four different books; in past years, I would have devoured them much more quickly but it’ll take me several more weeks to finish them all. In contrast, I finished both Neverland and PR 2.0 on the plane to and from Abu Dhabi using the Kindle which shows what happens when one is a captive audience for 14 hours.

Nicholas Carr, author of the Google article, recounted his personal experiences and conversations with friends. There’s general agreement among them that the longer people spend online, the less reading they do and the more difficult time they have focusing attention for extended periods of time. That’s pretty scary for us as individuals and also as purveyers of knowledge and critical thinking. We need to talk a lot more about how these social phenomena should affect how we teach and how we continue to develop ourselves as people with ideas. There’s a lot of traffic on the web about the story, so it must be striking a chord.

Bad news

Many of us were saddened by news of Tim Russert’s death. Who can’t remember election night Gore vs. Bush and Russert’s famous whiteboard? (It’s also a lesson that sometimes simpler is better.) I haven’t watched “Meet the Press” in years and years, yet Russert is etched indelibly in my mind. How can we have a national election without Tim Russert!

Uplifting message

Many of you have heard of or know Ron Davis, MD, who once led the government’s Office on Smoking and Health and has been a tireless anti-smoking advocate. Ron is now a leader at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and President of the AMA. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer several months ago. Pancreatic is one of the most virulent forms of cancer. I really admire the forthright, sometimes even humorous way, he has been writing about his personal cancer experiences. Michael Eriksen sent this link to a speech Dr. Davis gave to the AMA recently, AMA (Comm) Legacies in the circle of life.

Davis said about his disease, “As a physician, I know the survival statistics for someone with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. But if the five-year survival is 5 percent, that’s not zero. And as someone with relative youth, good functional status, outstanding health care, love and support from family and friends, and a thirst for life that feeds into a strong mind-body connection, then who knows what the future holds for someone in my situation. So never take away someone’s hope.” Those are powerful, inspiring words from a man with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

Davis also reminds us about the importance of friends and family. “Another positive to come out of my illness is that family and friendship have been redefined for me. It’s cliché to say this, but yes, a serious illness does force one to reexamine one’s priorities in life. And I’ve been so very happy to be able to spend more time with Nadine and our three sons during these past four months. A person cannot be president of the AMA without having incredible love and support back home. And when you add the big “C” to the mix, that love and support become your lifeline. So Nadine and Jared and Evan and Connor, I can’t thank you enough.”

Davis, Russert and the recent articles about email and the internet all share a common theme: legacy. What contributions do we each leave behind that make the world better, healthier, safer? How do we make a difference?




Dean Rimer - I am still a huge fan of your blog. Two quick comments. 1. I always appreciate your book recommendations. Here's a recommendation for your new Kindle: Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits by C.K. Prahalad . If you haven't already read it great book for anyone interested in public health. Victor Strecher recommended it at a recent conference. * Discusses how businesses typical target individuals at the top of the pyramid (high SES individuals) but if we target individuals at the bottom of the pyramid, businesses can help low SES individuals, decrease the poverty gap and still make a profit due to the large numbers. Discussed strategies which increased the availability of cataract surgeries and India and got the cost down to $50. Also discusses how technology can be used to bring information and buying power to low SES individuals. Sort of a RE-AIM model for business. 2. I noticed your post about Ron Davis. I just read the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, a former Carnie Mellon professor with pancreatic cancer. His lecture titled, Achieving Your Childhood Dreams, which the book is based on is on-line (warning: its over an hour). If you haven't read the book, you should also add that to your kindle. What is a very interesting experience is if you both read the book and watch the video of his lecture (I would recommend in it in this order). Its a great lesson on communication across different mediums (sort of what we lose and gain by each). When reading the book, you get the background on some of the points discussed in the lecture, a description of what he is feeling when giving this lecture, and explanation as to why he included what he included. The video allows you to see his energy level, his presentation style, and his nonverbal behavior. He wrote this lecture and book so his three kids (all under 6) would have something to help them understand who he was. Looks like he achieved this goal with the combo of this video and the book. Similar to what you mentioned about Davis, I am amazed by his ability to be both realistic and optomistic about his cancer diagnosis. Look forward to your next blog, Jeanne

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.