How Technology Can Enhance Health Professions Education

By George Thibault, MD

Digital technology is transforming how all of us live, communicate, and get information. It’s no different for health professions education, where leaders are navigating how to harness technology to help students learn continuously, retain knowledge, and build care competencies.

It’s clear that the “classroom” model for health professions education is fast evolving, moving away from traditional lectures to a greater reliance on online teaching, virtual experiences, and use of mobile tools that are more convenient, accessible, and adaptable. Many of these technological innovations hold great potential for preparing students and sustaining knowledge for faculty and patients as well. But we need to better understand how technology can enhance health professions education, and be blended with more traditional educational approaches. We need to make sure we are leveraging it in the right ways to improve clinical practice, enable lifelong learning broadly, and achieve better health results for patients.

To help academic medicine navigate this exciting but uncharted terrain, the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation earlier this year brought together a diverse set of stakeholders representing health professions education, higher education, health care systems, and patient advocacy, as well as technology development. We have just released a set of consensus recommendations to support a continuously learning health system that we hope will move health care organizations and academic institutions forward in shaping the education model of the future.

Our recommendations focus on promoting learning empowerment and putting learners more in control of their education processes; faculty development; using technology, assessment tools, and feedback loops to foster competency-based education; linking education more effectively with patient care, clinical information, and data via technology; and how it can foster better sharing of curriculum and educational tools to widen access to students, lower costs, and spur efficiencies.

A key issue is how to address the critical role of faculty in identifying, evaluating, and adapting technologies for education. There is no question that we need to be identifying educational technologies that can maximize lifelong learning anytime, anywhere for students, graduate trainees, faculty members, clinicians, and patients. But we also need to be focused on faculty development and making sure we appropriately support faculty so they can learn and be comfortable with new roles as curriculum designers, content organizers, coaches, facilitators, mentors, and assessors. Technology won’t replace faculty: It will expand their reach, impact, and efficiency.

Another important discussion focuses on the potential that technology, distance education tools, and social networking hold to foster teaching and learning in a health care system that continuously improves. We agree that technology should be used to bridge the gap between education and clinical missions, fostering things such as collaboration and interprofessional teamwork between and among faculty and students from different health professions and sites, and facilitate partnerships with patients and their families.

Everyone involved in the educational process needs to take advantage of the opportunity for using technology to foster learning. This is a rapidly developing area in which the continued input of faculty, learners, and patients will be important. We also need to recognize and acknowledge that students are way ahead of academic institutions when it comes to using and embracing technology and online tools. Academic medicine is treading in new territory. But it’s clear that technology, used in the right way and guided by appropriate leadership, holds great potential to create the culture for building a continuously learning health system between health professions education and health care delivery.

thibault_webGeorge Thibault, MD, is president of the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the education and training of health professionals.

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