In 2020, nearly every aspect of our lives – both personally and professionally – is impacted by, or in some cases entirely revolves around, some of the technological advancements of the last few decades. The healthcare industry in particular is one that continues to see annual heavy investment; according to McKinsey, in the last five years alone more than US $80 billion (£63.4 billion) has been invested into healthcare technology. This means that how future medical professionals are trained also continues to evolve.

This is not a new phenomenon – higher education as a whole has been evolving in a digital direction in the last decades. Waves of change, with students as the “consumers” at the epicenter of this transformation, is upending established methods for teaching and learning. Students nowadays have nearly unlimited information available at their fingertips, thanks to the internet and online learning resources. Even 15 years ago, studies were examining the effects of disruptive technology on higher education; students’ preference of blended learning to traditional classroom-first methodologies was already noted back in 2005. Come back to 2020, and this online-first mindset has only seemed to latch on stronger and make more sense, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

So what does online education have to offer to medical students that a traditional medical school’s classroom-first approach can’t provide at the same level?

Additional flexibility in the learning process

This trend toward blended learning and digital-first thinking has led many medical schools to adopt various alternative teaching techniques – one of the most popular of which being a “flipped classroom” approach to learning, in which students are provided with video lectures and other material to complete in advance so that in-class time can be spent answering questions and taking a deeper look at the topic at hand. This allows educators to utilize the valuable time they do spend with students making sure that they understand the content they need to learn.

Experience with virtual cadavers

Another obvious benefit here relates to students’ ability to be more prepared overall for when they finally do encounter a live (or deceased) human body. Digital platforms such as BodyInteract provide medical students with the opportunity to get up close and personal with the human body from the comfort of their own home – no cadaver needed, at least at first. Of course, it is vital for medical students to learn from the actual human body; that is a given. But prior to this, 3D anatomy models can allow students to digitally learn about the functions, systems, and placement of parts of the human body. When they do enter a cadaver lab, students should be more prepared than their predecessors thanks to the digital bodies with which they have already interacted.

Digital patient simulations

Furthermore, some digital platforms provide the opportunity for students to practice their clinical skills via patient simulations before they interact with actual patients. Not only are patient interactions a vital element of their future daily work as medical professionals, but patient simulations are a significant part of the USMLE exams – Step 2 CS, for example, is just a series of patient interactions during which students must take patient notes and determine the next steps in treatment. Digital patient simulations are just one step to help students prepare for their first internships and residencies.

Information retention tools

While of course students can make flashcards, study hard, or utilize other offline methods for retaining information, certain digital platforms have built-in retention mechanisms, one of which is Spaced Repetition. This is a technique in which students review the information they’ve covered regularly, rather than cramming just before test time. In reviewing information at designated intervals, the brain is able to lock the information in for long-term retention. Though not all digital learning resources provide this, it is possible to utilize this retention technique in combination with the resources available online.

The more digitized the world becomes, the more students will expect their education to follow this trend. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt standard medical education, we’re seeing more and more how vital these digital-first approaches to education are for the future of healthcare systems worldwide. Though of course certain topics (e.g. dissection) can’t be taught as well online as in person, there is no denying that embracing these digital tools is a superior way to train future physicians.

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