Minimizing Technology’s Impact on Your Off-time: a Guide to Unplugging

Disconnecting when you can can help with the build up of stress and anxiety that occurs in medical training

Between EHRs, mobile communications, and constantly looking up new information on the job, screen time is necessary in your career as a physician or physician-in-training.

As doctors ourselves, we at Panacea know it’s impossible to unplug at work. However, it’s still important to know how screen time can negatively affect your practice and wellbeing.

This article explores those effects—plus provides tips to minimize their impact in your off-time.

Screen time at work

No doubt about it: technology is a necessary part of saving patients’ lives. This cannot be stressed enough.

However, screen time—notably, time spent using electronic health records—comprises a large percentage of physicians’ time on the job. Doctors spend an average of 16 minutes and 14 seconds of active time using electronic health records during each patient appointment, and even as much as a third of patient visits looking at a computer screen

While there are benefits to EHRs, they can often be clunky, slow, and with a high-click burden. In fact, this Stanford Medicine poll of primary care physicians shows many are feeling negative effects:

  • 71% believe EHRs greatly contribute to their own burnout
  • 74% say using an EHR has increased the total number of hours they work on a daily basis
  • More than half (54%) say using an EHR actually detracts from their professional satisfaction and clinical effectiveness

Physical and mental impact of too much screen time

In addition to the above, too much screen time can affect your overall health, not to mention your ability to do your job:

Digital eye strain

Whether you’re looking at a handheld or desktop device like a tablet, smartphone or computer, any number of things—glare, brightness, viewing too close or too far away—can lead to a host of vision inconveniences and problems. Research shows that excessive screen time can cause blurred vision, double vision, dry eyes, stinging, underlying vision problems, headaches and more.

Pain, numbness and tingling

Because of all the repetitive motions we do while texting, emailing and web surfing, uncomfortable side effects can occur. Your hands may feel pain, numbness and tingling, and your neck and back may also experience soreness. 

Sleep problems

According to the National Sleep Foundation, people experience worse sleep when they use phones, tablets or computers before bedtime. Research indicates this is because that blue light stimulates the brain enough to disturb the body’s natural circadian rhythm—making it harder to fall asleep and/or leading to feeling less alert the next day. 

5 ways to start unplugging at home

You’re probably not going to be able to minimize, let alone fully unplug, from technology at work. However, you can lessen the potential hazards of screen use by doing any or all of the following in your personal life:

  • Use a tracker app: Apple and Android have embedded apps that monitor how much time you spend on your smartphone. Begin taking note; the results may surprise you. 
  • Start minimizing screen time in 15-minute increments: Don’t punish yourself by immediately reducing your time by several hours. If you usually spend three hours on your smartphone or other screens, cut back by 15 minutes one week, and then another 15 the following week. Rinse and repeat.
  • Declare “no-tech” areas at home—and be accountable: At home, designate certain places (like the dinner table) where nobody can use their phone, tablet, laptop or other devices. Experts strongly suggest you keep your bedroom technology-free. If you live with other people, make an agreement to hold one another accountable. 
  • Unplug before bedtime: Despite the benefits of a tech-free bedroom, it may not be possible if you are often on-call. When you have a free night, turn off all notifications and use the Do Not Disturb feature at least one hour before you go to sleep.
  • Go outside: Take a walk outdoors—and unless you absolutely need to, leave the phone at home. As you already know, fresh air coupled with getting away from it all increases endorphins and happiness, which can boost your mood and improve your physical health.

Plugging in can sometimes help you unplug

It may sound counterintuitive, but technology can actually help you “reconnect” once in a while—with yourself.

There are many free and low-cost meditation and mindfulness apps to help you manage your stress and take better control of your overall physical and emotional wellbeing. A quick look through the Apple App Store, Google Play, and even YouTube will give you a plethora of options to choose from.

Other than looking at your screen briefly to “choose your zen,” you don’t have to do much other than close your eyes, listen to the session … and breathe.

No, you’re not literally “unplugging” in this scenario; however, by taking advantage of these types of apps, you can further minimize the negative effects of frequent screen time you experience at work as a doctor. 

Personal use of technology is within your control

Famed architect, designer, writer and educator Frank Lloyd Wright once said of  technology use: “If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.”

But that’s not necessarily the case. Not when you have the ability to reduce your usage, unplug during your time off, and minimize technology’s negative impact on your life. 

So start small, but do start. You will feel better for it—mentally and physically. 

If you’re looking for ways to manage financial stress, check out the PRN Personal Loan or Student Loan Refinance – both designed just for doctors and doctors in training to improve your financial well-being.

Michael Jerkins, MD MEd is the President and Co-Founder of Panacea Financial and is also a practicing physician. He has lectured locally and nationally on physician personal finance, and has been published on student debt associated with medical education.

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