How technology is transforming medical education


A medical student works on samples for coronavirus research at a German university. PHOTO | AFP

The field of medicine and in particular, medical education is not immune to universal, rapidly changing technology. Covid-19 has further laid bare the reality that in today’s world where pandemics and the effects of climate change are likely to occur, learning institutions cannot always provide in-person education — making the case for investing in education technology.

Several advances in this area like simulations, virtual education, and e-learning platforms have evolved as pedagogical strategies to facilitate an active, learner-centered teaching approach.

Hence, it’s important that educators consider how these innovative technologies could improve or hinder the learning experience of medical trainees. In advocating their use, educators must discern which learning-assisting technologies merit usage in different scenarios as well as apply them contextually.

Technological tools available include e-learning, a web-based technology that extends teaching past the classroom and permits learners to hear and engage educators in lieu of or in addition to traditional classroom lectures. The potential impact of e-learning on education seems limitless. E-learning helps educators connect with diverse learners across vast distances.

It’s also cost-effective and has been found to result in higher learner satisfaction since students are able to learn at a self-directed pace. The use of various multimedia tools like videos, pictorials, and interactive self-assessment tools such as quizzes, or other feedback has also been revolutionary in medical training.

In addition, multimedia transforms the role of medical educators from that of hosting traditional lectures to that facilitating discussions and creatively maximising trainee comprehension via media intervention tools.

Audience Response Systems (ARS) technology has been increasingly utilised as it offers learners an opportunity for in-classroom participation and encourages group problem-solving. ARS also allows for immediate feedback after questions, which has been shown to improve knowledge condensation.

Other innovative technologies such as virtual reality and simulations offer learners an opportunity to improve skills development as well as enhance clinical decision making and patient safety skills among other experiences, in a near real-life environment. It is desired that they afford clinical realism while aiming to improve patient outcomes.

Mobile devices are also being used more widely in this era and have evolved to accommodate the numerous demands of the highly mobile educator and trainee.

Smartphones enable learners to instantly refresh knowledge on diagnoses, medical management, patient health information, medical calculations, as well as receive the most up-to-date literature, right at their fingertips.

Mobile devices remain limited in areas of battery life, malware risks, potential privacy breaches, or erroneous information in searches. Another potential risk with mobile devices is that their usage may easily distract learners due to information overload, coming through these devices.

Social media represents a potentially valuable tool for educators to exchange advice and medical information throughout their healthcare training.

From some of the aforementioned examples of technology used in medical education, several key advantages may be noteworthy. Firstly, it helps in scaling up the quality of instructional methods that have the potential to transform learning.

Secondly, it can allow educators to accommodate the different ways that students learn by facilitating different instructional methods. Thirdly, technology expands the opportunity for students to practise and plays a big role in increasing student engagement.

This list is, however, not exhaustive. In a nutshell, the ability of these modalities to facilitate knowledge acquisition, improve decision making, enhance perceptual variation, improve skill coordination, and provide an educational environment that engages the learner and allows learning that does not endanger the patient is the key advantage to their adaptation.

Now more than ever, technology is becoming integral to the practice of medicine with acceptance by both educators and learners, due to its ability to offer credible and easily accessible information. Research now shows that trainees prefer technology-associated modalities that offer learning material that is interactive, reputable, simple, pragmatic, and coupled with relevant feedback.

In this technological era, it’s not a matter of whether to embed it in our higher education curricula; rather, it’s how to embed it and monitor its effectiveness. As educators, we must consider whether the benefits of added flexibility and real-time feedback implemented by technology-assisted learning outweigh the downsides of the social isolation associated with classroom-independent learning.

Ultimately, if there is anything we’ve learnt during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is that technology must be adapted in our learning spaces. The gap remains in the availability of this technical infrastructure and the capacity for our educators and students to use this technology. These needs must be assessed before adopting these interventions.

A successful ed-tech intervention in an educational system is one that addresses important learning needs with current levels of infrastructure and capacity, has an evidence-based theory of change, and is seen as useful and thus implemented as intended by both teachers and students.

Continued research into how integrated technology affects student-related learning outcomes as well as patient care outcomes remains vital for future advancement.

Dr Gathu is the Programme Director and Consultant Physician, Department of Family Medicine, Aga Khan University Medical College, East Africa. She is also a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy