The curse of the quick fix

I’ve been reading Simon Garfield’s wonderful book Timekeepers: How The World Became Obsessed With Time. It is a fascinating set of narratives on the modern relationship with time. Towards the end, it slightly turns into a series of lists of conceptual art pieces that sound less Deeply Meaningful than Garfield makes out (oddly reminiscent of Evgeny Morozov’s To Solve Everything Click Here in this regard) and occasionally some of his more jokey passages grate, but most of the time (ho ho) it is a book that makes one see the taken-for-granted of the modern world for what it is. There are very funny passages on time management self-help books and on the world of haut horologie, and extremely thought-provoking ones on our time-poor age (or is it a perception? One of the time management gurus is actually wisest on this…)

Anyway a passage which struck me as especially germane to medicine, health care in general, and health IT in particular was the following – which is actually Garfield citing another author, but there you go:

And can any of these books really help us in these decisions? Can even the most cogently aligned bullet point and quadrant matrix transform a hard-wired mind? The notion of saving four hours every ten minutes is challenged by The Slow Fix: Why Quick Fixes Don’t Work by Carl Honoré. The book set its tone with an epigram from Othello: ‘How poor are they who have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?’6

The quick fix has its place, Honoré argues – the Heimlich manoeuvre, the duct tape and cardboard solution from Houston that gets the astronauts home in Apollo 13 – but the temporal management of one’s life is not one of them. He reasons that too much of our world runs on unrealistic ambitions and shabby behaviour: a bikini body within a fortnight, a TED talk that will change the world, the football manager sacked after two months of bad results.

He cites examples of rushed and dismal failings from manufacturing (Toyota’s failure to deal with a problem with a proper solution that might have prevented the recall of 10 million cars) and from war and diplomacy (military involvement in Iraq). And then there is medicine and healthcare, and the mistaken belief – held too often by the media and initially the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation – that a magic bullet could cure the big diseases if only we worked faster and smarter and pumped in more cash. Honoré mentions malaria, and the vague but quaint story of a phalanx of IT wizards showing up at the Geneva headquarters of the World Health Organisation with a mission to eradicate malaria and other tropical diseases. When he visited he found the offices somewhat at odds with those of Palo Alto (ceiling fans and grey filing cabinets, no one on a Segway). ‘The tech guys arrived with their laptops and said, “Give us the data and the maps and we’ll fix this for you.”’ Honoré quotes one long-term WHO researcher, Pierre Boucher, saying. ‘And I just thought, “Will you now?” Tropical diseases are an immensely complex problem . . . Eventually they left and we never heard from them again.’”

As my own practice has developed over the years, I have come to a realisation that quick fixes tend to unfix themselves over time, and the quick fix mentality carries a huge cost over time.

Here is Honoré’s TED Talk. Garfield has a very entertaining passage in the book where he talks at a rival of TED’s, which has a 17 minute limit (TED has an 18 minute one)

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