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How Bilingual Brains Think Outside the Boxe(s)

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Doctors don't always keep track of their patients closely enough for comfort. In the age of Facebook and Google, private clinics and medical practices throughout the U.S. still rely on paper filing systems and handwritten prescriptions, while others trust decades-old computer systems whose compatibility with other clinics' software is iffy at best. Meanwhile, patients suffer through duplicate tests, inaccurate prescription dosages and poorly organized follow-up visits.

Who bears the blame for this technological lag? Not doctors alone, surely -- after all, they don't shy away from new gadgets in the operating room. Technology providers, perhaps? Many physicians and software engineers agree that patient-tracking software involves its share of "quirks" -- i.e., unfamiliar and unintuitive features. Some pundits blame the government's increasing push to transition clinics to electronic record-keeping -- a laudable long-term goal that doesn't directly address the frustrating foibles of the health industry's record-keeping software.

As health care technology company CHMB says, "The business of healthcare has never been more complicated." Indeed, the immediate future of electronic health record-keeping may involve more clinics turning to the sorts of comprehensive services provided by health IT companies like CHMB and CareCloud: Patient-tracking software supported by full-time staff, along with secure private web storage and operational analysis -- all designed to keep clinical record-keeping above-board, and to help clinics actually see some of the reimbursements and incentives they've been promised in return for transitioning to electronic records.

The problem, in short, might be stated this way: Doctors and software companies are both ready for innovation, but innovation itself can't be bought. It's the result of a person with a novel perspective examining an old problem from a new angle, and seeing a solution no one's ever seen before. And so far, the health care IT industry still awaits its Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.

Part of the problem may simply be tunnel vision. We've all had the experience of chewing on a problem for days at a time, only to forget about it for a while and watch the solution pop into our heads unannounced, fully formed and ready for action. This experience reflects a neurological reality: Studies over the years have shown that the more "angles" from which our brains can consider a concept, the better we're able to understand and plan around its intricacies.

Take, for instance, a recent study that compared memory in bilingual and monolingual children. As the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology reports, a team led by Julia Morales Castillo of the University of Granada gathered two sets of children; one monolingual group and one bilingual group; and put the kids through a series of simple tests designed to examine the storage capacity of their working memory -- the form of memory that stores items, like numbers in a column or cards on a table, in our immediate sense of the present moment. Earlier research has found that most of us can store somewhere from five to seven items at a time in our working memory -- though some of us can remember 80 digits after some special training.

In this study, the researchers showed the kids an image of frogs placed around a computer screen; when the frogs disappeared, the researchers asked the kids to point out where they'd been. After a few variations on the test -- such as flashing a few different arrangements of frogs and asking the kids to remember each one -- the results were clear: Bilingual children outperformed monolingual children when it came to working memory. In fact, the more complex a task was, the more strongly the bilingual kids out-scored their monolingual counterparts.

"Okay," I can hear some you saying, "but what does any of this have to do with health care record-keeping software?" Not a whole lot, in any direct or literal sense. But perhaps this research offers a clue for industries that find themselves up against roadblocks and glass ceilings. How many of these traps could be avoided by those with a kind of "cultural bilingualism" -- the ability to consider the meaning of a technology or process in multiple contexts at once? How many bottlenecks do we walk into because, like the inhabitants of Flatland, we keep retracing the same two-dimensional paths without perceiving the whole picture?

As the digital domain adds new layers of complexity to fields like health care, it's helpful to keep in mind that innovation doesn't always take the logical next step -- sometimes it makes a helpful leap in an unexpected direction. And the more angles from which an innovator can consider a problem, the more groundbreaking his or her solution may turn out to be.