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Reimagining Medical Education for the Digital Age


Embracing new digital-based tools is critical throughout the healthcare landscape to prepare for the rise of telemedicine as a permanent way of life.

Image credit: insta_photos | stock.adobe.com

Image credit: insta_photos | stock.adobe.com

“Move fast and break things.”

It’s a mantra that may have worked in the tech sector for a long time, though many have come to question that wisdom in recent years. However, when stakes are literally life-or-death, such as in healthcare, most organizations are inclined to move forward with caution.

But there is still an enormous need for healthcare to accelerate its embrace of new technologies and ways of working.And driving that change begins with how we educate tomorrow’s physicians, nurses, and health practitioners.

Storm clouds on the horizon

The delivery of healthcare has evolved significantly post-pandemic with the rise of telemedicine and virtual care. Yet we can’t ignore the obvious: medical education continues to lag in helping practitioners to use technology and innovation to work more efficiently and effectively.

Digital innovations in medical education hold enormous promise for both students and educators alike, especially in rural and underserved communities. We see some steps to strengthen medical education in rural regions—such as initiatives from the US Health Resources and Services Administration to develop new residency programs outside major metropolitan areas—but virtual capabilities can help to vastly accelerate these efforts.

Consider the increased access that medical trainees in rural communities now have to learn, with important clinical skills and even entire specialties they may have lacked access to in the past. One example is nuclear medicine, which has grown rapidly in recent years due to a combination of technological and imaging advancements.

Imagine how online platforms and interactive multimedia resources can make learning more engaging and two-way in nature, rather than the 20th-century model of students passively absorbing classroom or study information when outside of the clinic.Imagine how immersive virtual environments can prepare learners for what it’s like to walk into the operating room before they actually set foot in one, bridging the gap between theory and practical application of knowledge.

Yet the current approach to education would be all too recognizable to students from years past, despite the quantum leaps forward we’ve seen in technology. Today’s approach still relies far too heavily on exams and by-the-book education rather than a longitudinal learning approach in which they develop the competencies they will use on the job.

In a world in which practitioners will increasingly specialize and collaborate across teams to diagnose and treat problems, too much of their time is still spent as individuals, passively absorbing information in cavernous lecture halls.Without significant reform, we risk falling behind other industrialized countries in producing sufficient numbers of skilled healthcare professionals. In the early days of the pandemic, the so-called “Fauci Effect” saw a spike in medical school enrollments as young people were reminded of the unique potential of a career in medicine to change lives.

But burnout and disillusionment with outdated practices have set in for many. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, we could see an estimated shortage of up to 124,000 physicians by 2034. At the same time, we need to double the number of nursing graduates staying in the field by 2025 to keep up with demand as the population ages.

The path forward

Today’s digital innovations offer opportunities to drive competency-based learning, enable greater collaboration, and ultimately improve patient care by better preparing students for the realities of the job.One popular example is online study tools, such as question banks, which learners use to supplement textbooks or curriculum and prepare themselves for certification exams.

While question banks have been used for some time, they are more useful than ever thanks to adaptive learning and AI technology. Today’s enhanced question banks now routinely have capabilities to track individual learning progress and compare results with others, providing a holistic overview of a given user’s knowledge levels.

But we have still only scratched the surface. We need to embrace a few key strategies in rethinking our approach to medical education.

Adopt digital technologies to enable new ways of learning and working

With so many digital natives swelling the ranks of medical schools today, it’s long overdue for us to offer more dynamic options for learning and consuming information. Today’s incoming practitioners are more accustomed to absorbing huge amounts of information from iPads, Google, and even video games than poring over lengthy case studies in physical libraries. We don’t treat patients with textbooks, why should we rely on teaching to one?

Embracing new digital-based tools is especially critical when it comes to preparing students for the rise of telemedicine as a permanent way of life. For example, students must begin learning how to treat a patient in a virtual setting and how to pick up on other cues beyond traditional measures, such as checking blood pressure. Research from the National Institutes of Health has found that integrating telehealth experiences into the curriculum can help learners prepare for the expanded role of remote healthcare delivery and enhance their grasp of telemedicine practices.

Use artificial intelligence (AI) to focus on what matters

Jensen Huang, the CEO of chipmaker Nvidia, recently predicted that we’ll see artificial general intelligence—technology that can compete with humans—within a mere five years. What does that mean for the future clinicians beginning their education today, on the heels of the largest physician shortage of our time?

It means that we need to see AI as a tool to help us complete our jobs more effectively. The rise in burnout among physicians and nurses only underscores the need for more efficient ways of working—allowing us to do more with less and ensure a healthy, balanced lifestyle for practitioners. AI can do a great deal to help alleviate the repetitive tasks associated with healthcare and healthcare training.

By using AI as a tool, we can automate more routine parts of the workday and allow practitioners to spend more time on person-to-person engagement, not to mention drawing insights from the wealth of data that AI makes available. In addition, AI can be leveraged to help physicians and physicians-in-training make better use of their time. For example, AI can generate data that help learners to better pinpoint the subjects in which they face the most risk, enabling them to focus their limited study time in those areas.

Focus on real-world experiences

Students should be prepared to hit the ground running upon completion of their programs. Simulating real patient care situations through virtual and augmented reality immersive experiences can help learners to simulate real-world scenarios—even incorporating accurate patient data—as they develop their clinical skills in a safe and controlled setting. Analysis from the Journal of the American Medical Association has found that virtual simulations can increase self-confidence and improve performance, as well as decision-making skills.

About the Author

Mike DeSimone is general manager at Ascend Learning.

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