Three Ways To Develop A Health Reading Practice

I believe it is a myth that medical professionals read medical literature casually. That is, with no purpose. They do not simply pick up The New England Journal and read cover-to-cover as if it were a novel. This fallacy, perpetrated by academic institutions is not a healthy nor effective way to keep your professional knowledge and skills up to par. So, that begs the question: how does one know what to read? You must begin with the end in mind – you must have a purpose for reading whatever it is you are reading.

Stick to the major findings

Major arguments are more important than facts and figures. At least to start. If you can’t remember the exact odds ratio, effect size or even number needed to treat off the top of your head after reading a paper, that’s ok. Many are discouraged by this since they see so many faculty and experts do so. But as you recall, many of these experts do not read a wide variety of literature – they stick to a specific subset of papers that they know very well. But for you who is getting back onto the proverbial horse, reading with the goal of understanding the major arguments of the paper is more important at this time.

A simple, modern method of accomplishing this is to use multiple forms of media to take in the particular study you are reading. Since you’re sticking with large, important, maybe even landmark studies, they’re likely going to be published in major journals. Almost all of these journals have a podcast or audio version of the manuscript itself. By hearing someone else (usually the author themselves) explain the article, you are likely to pick up on major themes and elements that may go otherwise unnoticed by reading alone.

Sleep on it

Taking new information in, whether you’ve been consistently reading or not, still requires processing time for your mind. After using various analytical reading techniques to consume the manuscript, you’ll need time to digest it afterward. This process can’t be rushed or you risk the possibility of misunderstanding key elements and confusing conclusions. Time apart from the paper and topic itself allows you to recognize key elements that may have otherwise been missed. 

By simply taking this time to process an article it also encourages you to naturally re-read key portions of the manuscript. While some recommend re-reading new articles numerous times, it can be a poor use of time to repeatedly read the introduction and even certain elements of the discussion. By strategically identifying questions that require clarification, you can selectively re-read those important aspects of the paper- saving time and increasing your comprehension simultaneously.

Seek perspective

While you need time to process the material you’ve just read, it can’t be in excess. A critical piece of forming actionable knowledge from the article is to do just that- act upon it. While it may be difficult to make a new recommendation based on the results of the study you’ve read on rounds the next day, you can, however, bring the topic up in the form of a discussion. Doing so allows you to expand your understanding and confirm/deny certain conclusions you came to after your own reading.

In fact, reaching out to other professionals, especially those outsides of your own profession, can give you the perspective you otherwise would not get. Doing so does more than just improve your working relationships, it will also uncover important questions about the article in hand that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. Since many of us in practice do not directly interact with formal education any longer, we may miss out on these interactions that were second nature when a preceptor or faculty was around. But recognizing your fellow co-workers can play that role is an important aspect of developing a long-term continuous education plan.


More from EM PharmD related to Three Ways To Develop A Health Reading Practice

How to read a scientific article