Jody Ball, FD Sante - Plug into online education

Healthcare providers love online learning - but does it spell the end for traditional med ed?

Healthcare providers rank among the most plugged-in professionals. Their thirst for knowledge, combined with a love of smart gadgets and a need to keep one step ahead of an ever more sophisticated patient base, means they are increasingly receptive to new methods of learning and communication. But does online and digital clinical learning mean the end of traditional med ed?

Doctors are generally eager to gain practical knowledge and share case notes with their peers. This makes social media platforms the ideal space for clinical discussions. In fact the top reason for doctors to use platforms such as Sermo and, according to a report from EPG, is a need to share and hear about the experiences of their peers.

Social media can be a source of information, help with collaborative research and be a platform for peer-to-peer training. They can uncover clinical trial subjects and pinpoint rare case studies for discussion. But, aside from potential breaches of patient confidentiality, such channels cannot provide accreditation or benchmark what has been learned.

Accreditation and, crucially, the collection of points are vital to successful med ed. In the UK, continuing medical education is now an integral part of the revalidation process that, by law, requires doctors to prove their fitness to practise every five years to remain on the Medical Register.

Earlier this year, then Health Secretary Andy Burnham announced ten pilot schemes to test new appraisal procedures. Doctors, health organisations, the royal colleges and the General Medical Council will then refine and standardise the process. Revalidation is expected to start in 2011, but the colleges have already decided that doctors will need to accumulate 50 points a year over the five-year revalidation period.

Digital learning lets them study at times of their own choosing and at their own pace, reducing time away from surgeries and hospitals.

A further advantage of accredited online education is its ability to evaluate success. Online learners can easily test their knowledge before and after the virtual course. This shows the course setters where they might improve an element of the teaching and it shows healthcare professionals where they need to improve their understanding.

Pharma companies switched on early to the idea that e-learning gives them better control over content than traditional education because it prevents speakers discussing pipeline or off-label information.

Online modules are no longer death by multiple choice for users. They can be interactive and combined with video, surgical feeds and special apps to make them more engaging and to help with knowledge retention beyond the point-scoring.

It is estimated that about two-thirds of accredited learning is now online. However, it is not for everyone and not everything is suitable for such isolated learning. Healthcare providers - particularly in specialities such as surgery - will always need hands-on and peer-to-peer training. There is also a need to convene experts at international meetings.

Nothing can touch the buzz of brand new data being presented at a packed symposium. But the buzz of that symposium can be extended and enhanced with video case studies, streamed live practical demonstrations and simultaneous broadcast via webcasts, podcasts and Twitter feeds.

The proliferation of channels for clinical learning provides endless options to create the right bespoke programme for a modern med ed campaign, so long as accreditation is factored in.


- Which pharma company has improved its profile most in the past year?

Pfizer, with its 'dead rat' ads about the dangers of buying counterfeit meds.

- Who is the most effective third-party advocate you have worked with?

Mary Baker, when she headed the UK's Parkinson's Disease Society. I have yet to meet anyone who could match her strength, commitment and determination to advance neurological research for patient benefit.

- What did you learn from the swine flu episode?

Patients and HCPs got conflicting advice, and vaccine take-up was poor. Healthcare experts must collaborate on comms for national health issues.

- Jody Ball is managing director of FD Sante.

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