"Today, the rapid and unsettling pace of change has left us all more than a little, well, fragged," wrote Tom Hayes and Michael S. Malone in an Aug. 10, 2009, Wall Street Journal op-ed. They recite a litany of major and sometimes devastating events that in previous eras might have taken generations to unfurl, but now take only years or even months.

The examples they cite from just the past decade include "three economic bubbles (dot-com, real estate and credit), three market crashes, a devastating terrorist attack, two wars and a global influenza pandemic"; plus "game-changing consumer products and services (iPod, smart phones, YouTube, Twitter, blogs)"; the total transformation of the recorded music industry; and the impending demise of newspaper, magazine, network television and book publishing businesses.

The drivers of this acceleration are exponentially faster computing and exponentially more valuable networking, just as Moore's Law and Metcalfe's Law, respectively, would lead us to expect.

Quick Decision-Making

The acceleration already has produced what Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie has called "reduced time to insight." Insight is something much to be desired. But the acceleration also leaves us, say Hayes and Malone, with no choice but to make "bold, impetuous moves, all while betting that the information is not just complete, but accurate." 

Tweets limited to 140 characters, 30-second TV spots and 10-second news sound bites (often blatantly biased) may reduce time to something, but whether that something is, or could be, insight for the individual is debatable. Yet these are the only sources from which many people, even leaders, get their insights today, because they lack the time or the inclination to read books and journals or watch in-depth documentaries.

Hospital leaders have good reason to be more "fragged" than the leaders of any other industry. The "rapid and unsettling pace of change" in health care began to hit them two decades ago with massive changes in health policy and financing (managed care through health reform) and in delivery (trends to outpatient care, retail clinics, ambulatory surgical centers, freestanding radiology centers, etc.).

These changes continue to accelerate, as whole new forms of medicine emerge, increasingly sophisticated care is delivered by institutions and practitioners lower down the delivery system's perceived value chain, and partisan politics appear to be doing their best to ensure the hassle of policy change (e.g., the PPACA) without actually changing much.

There's not much we can do about it, say Hayes and Malone, except trust the tweets and hope for the best. "Without the luxury of time, trust will be the new currency of our times, whether in news sources, economic systems, political figures, even spiritual leaders. As change accelerates, it will remain one true constant."

Indeed it will. But there is, in fact, something we can do about it.

Trusty Distillation

Government, academia and industry already use sophisticated analytics to mine all of cyberspace, including the Twittersphere, for insight into people's behavior and psyche. (December 21, 2010, Most Wired column in H&HN Weekly).

My publication Health Futures Digest was founded on the fact that the growing volume of information and knowledge exceeds our individual capacity to absorb, and is published on the principle that the volume can be distilled to an absorbable essence that is trustworthy, that highlights lasting trends rather than ephemeral events and technologies, and that is conducive to the rapid formation, in the reader's mind, of real insight.

Advanced analytics can do most of this, too, but the artificial intelligence on which they are based cannot match our human capacity for judgment, at least not yet. We need analytics and analysts. And we have both.

David Ellis is a futurist, author and consultant, and the publisher of Health Futures Digest, a monthly online review and commentary on technological innovations and their consequences and implications for health policy and practice. Mr. Ellis is also a regular contributor to H&HN Weekly and a member of Speakers Express.

The opinions expressed by authors do not necessarily reflect the policy of Health Forum Inc. or the American Hospital Association.