Defining Learners by the Answers They Need, Not the Questions They Ask

By Tim Peck, MD

Digital medical education is at an important moment in its development, and its potential for positive influence is unprecedented. To date, no system exists that provides expedient production and delivery of medical education content without compromising trust and accuracy. The academic community trusts traditional journals, because articles undergo a rigorous and lengthy peer-review process before publication; however, the landscape of medical knowledge shifts daily, and digitally published education materials keep abreast of developments in medical education at a speed that traditionally peer-reviewed sources can’t match. The downside of forgoing the peer-review process, of course, is that the academic community is currently unable to determine which digital education sources provide reputable information. We must reconcile quality with speed if we hope to leverage electronic medical information and provide trusted, accurate content.

Three years ago, I set out to find a way to reconcile this dilemma. I aimed to create a web-based system that would pressure digital resources to adhere to higher standards of validity and academic rigor. Faced with a large and intricate problem, I started small and partnered with a co-resident to create a social media website that recommended quality materials to emergency medicine physicians. The platform we created was too small, however, and the site never became popular.

Motivated by that experiment, I reevaluated my methodology. I realized that to do this correctly, I would need to enlist the help of people whose skills would complement my own. I needed skilled computer programmers, lawyers, researchers, web designers, and funding—in short, I needed a company. I knew nothing about entrepreneurship and started by sharing and blogging my ideas. I attended lectures at the Harvard i-Lab and sought out mentors with experience in educational technology universities across the world; fortunately, they understood the power of my vision and encouraged me not to give up.

After I spoke at a symposium for medical students across the Northeast, a talented Boston University MD/MBA student named Lonnie Kurlander approached me with ideas and visions that overlapped with my own. With a team of programmers, she had been trying to create an electronic platform to share medical knowledge. We became partners and over the next year, we recruited team members including Glenn Willen, an ex-Google programmer, and Celina Ansari, MD, a postdoc at Stanford’s Department of Radiology. We registered ourselves as an educational technology startup called Parzival, Inc. We created an electronic platform called, which is powered by a machine-learning algorithm to automatically aggregate emergency medicine-relevant digital materials and then intelligently and appropriately curate them based on human interaction with the site.

The site is based on my theory that to bring the greatest benefit to a group of learners, in this case Emergency Medicine physicians, that group of learners must be defined by the answers they need, not by the questions they ask. By limiting the information that can be searched to information that is relevant to Emergency Medicine physicians only, we created a platform that can identify what resources are most useful to this group. On December 9, 2013, we released the site for closed beta testing and have started to amass data on how Emergency Medicine physicians are interacting with the resources that benefit them and only them.

iClickEM aims to fill a real need for an entire community; however, it is only the first step toward understanding how we can harness the power of the Internet to improve how we will learn medicine in the future. A vacuum currently exists within academia: Medical knowledge will be transmitted and shared through education technology, but medical academia does not have the knowledge, resources, tools, or personnel to create this educational technology for itself. Until it does, this process will be driven largely by private enterprise. This creates a real and tangible need for leadership and new initiatives to bring together the two seemingly disparate worlds of private and public medical education.

Parzival, formed by Lonnie Kurlander, Timothy Peck MD, Celina Ansari MD, and Glenn Willen, is currently developing specialty-specific search engines for every field of medicine. Registration is open for the waiting list to each beta program, including iClickEM at Follow us on Twitter @ParzivalInc, @TimothyCPeckMD, or on Parzival’s Facebook page. You may contact the author at