My father, technical communication, hospitals, and my grandfather – What do they have in common?

As someone who is not currently working in the field of technical communication, I enjoyed the introduction of 21st Century Theory and Practice and the chapter by Saul Carliner.  I enjoyed reading about the changes of the field that I aspire to join in the near future.

The field of technical communication has evolved so much during the past 25 years, because technical communication is such a computer-driven field.  As I read through Chapter 1, I made a mental comparison of my father’s career path.  The chapter reminded me of my father’s job, which I wrote about in my technology literacy narrative during the first week of class.  A major influence on my technological upbringing, he started his job in 1986 with the job title of Data Processing Manager in one person department at a small school district in south central Kansas.  Now in 2013, his job title is Director of Information Technology and he manages over 15 full-time employees who report to him on a daily basis.  The reason his job changed, like technical communication, is because it had no choice.  You can’t keep going to middle school if you have been promoted to 9th grade.  The same is true for technology.  You can’t keep using an outdated system when everyone else moves to the more advanced system.  The only way technical communication could survive was to embrace every change it ever faced.


GHX company logo from

To connect the chapter with the introduction of the book, the opening page states only some 2% of hospitals have made the transition to digital (p. 1).  I think it is unfair and unrealistic to think that gigantic operations, such as hospitals, can suddenly make the leap from paper to paperless in a matter of years.  They were never expected to become digital until recently, unlike technical communication, so they did not take the technology tip and transition gradually.  Hospitals have been doing business just like normal.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think hospitals becoming paperless will be benefit the hospitals, insurance companies, and patients, I just don’t see it happening in the immediate future.  According to Forbes in January 2013, only 1.8% of hospitals have an electronic record system in place.  Many hospitals, according the article, are not ready and are asking for more time, despite the amount of money they have received to assist in their transition from paper to paperless.  I worked at a very large hospital in the accounting department part-time while I was in college.  The reason I got the job, in fact, was to help transition their invoice system to a streamlined digital process.  The hospital was trying to use a new system, called GHX, and there were so many hiccups with the system that they extended my employment by an additional year.

I compare it to teaching my 80-year old grandfather to set up an email account and get a cellphone.  It took YEARS for my family to convince him to set up an email account and use a cellphone.  After he finally did, it took quite a while for him to be able to use his new technology correctly.  Asking people to change from one habit to another, especially when they have been doing things the same for a long time, is unrealistic and requires a great deal of time.

To conclude, I am not surprised that technical communication has made so many leaps in the digital age.  Such changes and adjustments are necessary for the continuation of the field.  I hope to learn more about the programs and software I will be using when I start working in a technical communication field, but who knows if they will even be the same by that time!

Posted on September 29, 2013, in Society, Workplace and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Sarah, I think your comparison of hospitals switching to electronic/paperless records with trying to teach your grandfather how to email is a great way to put things into perspective. I mean, if it takes years to educate a handful of people to use basic technology like email, how can we expect a dynamic, complex organization like a hospital (and all of its affiliates) to transition to a dynamic, complex technology in that same amount of time? I work in healthcare, so I see this struggle with a number of the practices I work with – and most of them are smaller private practices, not hospitals! I agree that there are strong benefits to this change, but I think the expectations may be unrealistic.

  2. evelynmartens13

    Hi Sarah:

    Yes, interesting perspective! What’s interesting to me is that our regional HMO that services our university in rural SW WI is paperless and almost seemed to do it overnight. Yet, at the same time, I’m trying to negotiate some records from a hospital in Santa Rosa, Ca., and they are way behind the electronic curve — like it will take up to 30 days to get these hard copy records and get them to a health care provider in WI. So, maybe it’s a function of the fact that this huge, high tech hospital is soooo…big that the sheer scale of what they have to do to transition is prohbitive.

    Your dad seems to have survived the electronic revolution quite well — thrived, I would say. He and I are probably not that far apart in age, yet quantam leaps difference in adaptability. I’m curious — what does he think about social media? Is he a pretty active user?

    Your hospital job reminds me of a temp job I had in Ca. around 1987. I was hired by a large bank to proofread hundreds of dot matrix pages against a “new” printout of bank info — lines and lines of addresses and acct. #s.. New technology, new system, etc. I was hired for 3 months, but it kept me employed for 2 and 1/2 years! It seems that lots of big companies and organizations routinely underestimate the transition time to new technology (maybe that’s not the case — maybe I just hear about the “problems” rather than the ones who do it successfully).

  3. I work for an insurance company that is also paperless. I think they has started making the transition before I started working there. The only paper we have is paper letters sent to the member’s. When we receive paper correspondence, it is scanned into the database and worked within a certain turn-around time. It helps that the company had started the transition before it started to really grow. A gradual transition is much easier for an organization to make, rather than making a drastic change. A couple years seems like a lot of time, but it really isn’t in terms of converting records.

    Your story of your grandpa sounds a little like my mom. I received a text from her the other day and nearly dropped my phone out of surprise. She has been so resistant to change that is shocking now that she is finally starting to embrace current communication technology.

  4. What a wonderful post connecting personal details and experiences to the waves in technical communication!

    I recently assigned my ENGL 121 Intro to Professional Communication students a chapter from _Solving Problems in Technical Communication_ (a text I think those of you in ENGL 700 are using, so it’s CH 4 if you want to make the note) and there was a great chart on p. 107 of the professional development cycle. It highlighted how we don’t stop learning once we move from being students to job seekers to practitioners. All three of your examples show an openness to change, specifically in the form of technology, which is great! Perhaps this is a theme you can focus on for the rest of the semester?

  5. I like your point of asking people to change how they do things after they already have habits is hard. My mother works for a company that gave the option to receive paychecks or get direct deposit. Recently they made a change that no more paychecks would be distributed and everyone had to get direct deposit. They could go online to see/print their paystubs. This caused quite a disturbance because some of her co-workers don’t own computers. Now they’re being forced to figure out how to use a computer and how they’re going to view their paycheck. You could imagine how well this change went.

    I think with the constant changes to technology that those that are well versed with it now will continue to stay that way. I could be wrong, but I feel that we’re constantly adapting to changing technology so it will be hard to fall out of touch with it. But maybe in 20 years things will be around that will make us scratch our heads, and our kids will be trying to teach us how to use it.

  6. I just love the hospital example, because I have lived through that transition. You said, ” I think it is unfair and unrealistic to think that gigantic operations, such as hospitals, can suddenly make the leap from paper to paperless in a matter of years. They were never expected to become digital until recently, unlike technical communication, so they did not take the technology tip and transition gradually” I think that is a really excellent point, however, I know from experience that it is very possible to accomplish the task if you are motivated to do so and have the resources to do what needs to be done.

    For example, my hospital had a full paper process in place when I started as well as an under-utilized electronic medical record (EMR). When the decision was made to have us try to go paperless, it was a big deal and had several steps that were necessary to make it happen, including converting all the historical charts to an electronic format, updating our hardware and software, and training staff throughout the hospital. I think the most important part was that the project was supported by the administration, otherwise it would have resembled your story of teaching your grandfather to use email and a cell phone. People don’t like to do the work of changing, and even if they are willing, it is a rough process.

    I think that while it is rather unreasonable to expect large unwieldy corporations to change quickly, it is also necessary, because our technology and thus our culture is changing so quickly. As rough as it is, everyone does need to adapt as quickly as they can to remain relevant and competitive, whether it is a hospital or a technical communicator.

    • Your comment about having support from administration is the key. If you don’t have the buy-in from the top-down…good luck! I think this is why some of my clients are struggling with the transition to EMR – they are feeling “forced” to make the change and are resistant, making an already challenging project feel nearly impossible.

      “Resistance is futile.” ~The Borg

    • I’m glad that the hospital was able to go paperless! I think you’re right — the push for change has to come from the top down to the bottom.

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