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Where doctors get information

Systematic review

Where do doctors go to get their information? Lots of places – print, colleagues, meetings, lectures, Internet, and others. Part of the problem doctors face is the huge amount of stuff being produced. More and more randomised trials and systematic reviews. Together with other papers on basic science and observational studies, it is just too much to keep track of.

Doctors and others have to have a strategy that works for them, depending on where they are. Some places will be so computerised that nothing ever goes on paper. Some will still be using a fountain pen. Often the two will be side by side. A systematic review [1] tells us that, for the time being at least, papers seems to be king.

Systematic review

A wide strategy was set up to look at several electronic databases for papers examining information-seeking behaviour in doctors. Studies had to explicitly or implicitly define information need as medical information, rather than some other form of information. Authors were contacted to seek information about other, unpublished, studies. If the instrument used in data collection was piloted before use, or otherwise independently examined, it was regarded as validated.


There were 19 papers published between 1978 and 2001, using questionnaires, or interviews, or both. Most involved doctors in primary care, mostly in the USA. Random sampling was used in eight studies. The median response rate was 80%.

Paper (books, papers, desk references) was the main source of information in 13 studies, colleagues were the main source in four, and one (published in 1996) found electronic sources to be the main source. There was no change over time.

Figure 1 shows the percentage of doctors using print sources. Most showed print sources to be used by over 50% of doctors. Figure 2 shows the percentage using colleagues. Most showed colleagues to be used by under 40%.

Figure 1: Doctors' use of print sources

Figure 2: Doctors' use of colleagues


Not much recent information from outside the USA. In Britain and other countries with large socialised healthcare systems, it seems a little odd that no-one has bothered to find out how the main consumers of medical information behave in order to get that information.

Actually, it is more than a little odd, it is a major omission. Yet it would be reasonably simple to obtain, in order that information could be better targeted. Here is a challenge for information professionals and young doctors who would like a quick paper for their CVs. We want to know what doctors do to access information, what they want, and what are the major barriers preventing information seeking. What is the impact of those evidence sources that are now available? Do bright young doctors with IT skills do better?

The authors of the review are in no doubt that convenience of access, reliability and high quality, quick use, applicability and habit make information seeking likely to occur and be successful. Lack of time, the huge amount of material and forgetfulness hinder the process. This means that perhaps only one question in three or four gets followed up. Making it easier and better could improve this, and help doctors (and other professionals) use good evidence more.


  1. M Dawes, U Sampson. Knowledge management in clinical practice: a systematic review of information seeking behaviour in physicians. International Journal of Medical Informatics 2003 71: 9-15.

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