What is a Black book? 5 tips to get you started right now!

If you’ve been at an accredited Naturopathic Medical school for any length of time, you’ve likely heard whispers of needing a black book, but what exactly is this mysterious tome? Simply put, a black book is a self-made database of medical conditions, naturopathic and conventional treatments, and most importantly, clinical pearls gathered throughout your clinical training and beyond. There is no one ‘right way’ to compile or organize your black book, as it will be as individualized as you are, but in this blog, we will go over some basics to get you started.

Why do you need a black book at all?

If you’re anything like me, your naturopathic education has likely found you spending countless hours perusing UpToDate, AAFP, FPNotebook and other medical databases like it’s your job. However, as robust as these resources are, they are severely lacking in naturopathic remedies, and require lots of “digging” to find exactly what you were looking for. Further, as naturopathic medical students, we are bombarded with a metaphorical “fire hydrant” of information. 

Personally, my notes became so voluminous I finally had to cave and buy more storage on my drive! Even if you have a meticulously organized note-taking system, finding that one PowerPoint from first year you are certain you scribbled in the margin of exactly when you need it is simply not feasible. 

Finally, we are surrounded by more accomplished and learned naturopathic physicians now than at any other point in our careers. Our teachers have valuable insights based on years of clinical experience… things that can’t be looked up online. We need a place to store this precious information until we are ready to implement it in our practices.

Start Early

Enter the black book! I cannot urge you strongly enough to start now. I understand that a black book is this big daunting thing. You are worried about messing it up. Heck, you don’t even know how to start. That’s why I’m here. The beauty is, if you start now, you can just add to it slowly, piece by piece, and in a few years time, you’ll be surprised how much useful information you have amassed. You will mess it up; that’s OK, it’s the best way to learn and figure out what will work better for you. As a third-year student, just starting my own black book journey, I wish I had started in first-year. I now have 2000+ notes, and I just don’t foresee myself being able to go back through them with a fine-toothed comb looking for those beautiful pearls I know are hiding in there.

Now that you are convinced, here’s the HOW!!

Step 1. Choose the software you are comfortable with, it can be tempting to find a new fancy app that promises you the world, but sometimes simple is best. OneNote, Google Drive, and Evernote are all timeless classics that will get the job done reliably.

Step 2. Remember, it doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect, this special book is for your eyes only, and being able to find information quickly is infinitely superior to a fancy pants font or the newest Canva inspired theme

Step 3. Create a backbone of your black book. For me, that looks like folders for each organ system and a folder each for botanicals, homeopathy and nutrition. You can take this one step further by creating documents in each folder for each pathology; so for example, under the gastrointestinal system, you may have Barrett’s esophagus, cirrhosis, celiac disease, etc. That way you are ready to add notes at a moment’s notice

Step 4. Make a template of what info to include in each section. Some suggested sections are:

  • Brief description of classic presenting symptoms (based on actual clinic encounters)
  • What diagnostic tests to run
  • Naturopathic treatment (include mechanism of action)
  • Allopathic treatment (include mechanism of action)
  • Clinical pearls

Step 5. Have a consistent system for getting info into your black book. Maybe you have a special colored highlighter for anything you want to include and at the end of the week you plop all those juicy nuggets right into you black book. Maybe you like to just always have your black book open on your desktop and you can just type/ cut and paste as the lecturer is speaking. Whatever your system is, find something that works for you and stick with it.  Consistency is key.

Extra tips

Alright, you’ve got the basics, but here are a few ideas that will help take your black book to the next level of usability.

  • Cite and source everything! Even if it is something an attending said in clinic, write down the information, followed by “as per Dr. XYZ”. This will be invaluable in the future when you need to ‘call a friend’, especially in your first years of practice.
  • Make a copy of any resources directly into your black book when you can, websites change over time, and are less reliable than taking a screenshot or embedding a pdf right into your black book.
  • When you read a fascinating or helpful journal article, spend an extra 2-3 minutes writing a brief summary (a PICO or précis are good options). This will allow you to suggest evidence-informed treatments to your patience with confidence.
  • Have a resources page where you can keep a list of anything and everything you may suggest to your patient (your favorite meditation app, local services, helpful youtube videos). Keeping this list is helpful for when you don’t have time to explain everything to your patient.

Hopefully this blog has given you the basics necessary to get started with your own naturopathic black book. Being a student can be overwhelming at times, but if you have a solid framework in place, you will have a place to squirrel away all the juicy tidbits your professors casually mention in class, which will save you countless hours in the future. Stay curious my friends.

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