We need more doctors.
Between older care providers retiring, and the general population shift that is the aging of the Baby Boomers, we are running into a massive demographic of more, older patients, living longer and managing more chronic conditions. This puts incredible pressure not just on the remaining doctors and nurses to make up the gap, but strains the capacity of schools to recruit, train, and produce competent medical professionals.
So how can schools do more to reach students and empower them to enter the healthcare field?
The increasing popularity of online programs (particularly at the Masters level, among working professionals looking for a boost to their career advancement) has called forth a litany of studies and commentaries questioning everything from their technology to their academics,compared to traditional, on-campus programs. More productive would be questioning the structure and measuring the outcomes of degree programs in general, rather than judging the value of a new delivery mechanism against an alternative more rooted in tradition than science.
In terms of sheer practicality, though, a distance education—yes, even for doctors and surgeons—makes a certain amount of sense. One of the hottest topics in the medical community right now is Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and the ongoing struggle to fully implement and realize the utility of such technology.
Rolling out in October of 2015, comes the sidecar for the EHR vehicle: ICD-10, the international medical coding language that the U.S. has long postponed adopting. While the digital nature of modern records platforms at least makes ICD-10 viable, it still represents a sharp learning curve for current care providers.
Then there is the intriguing promise of pharmacogenetics, whereby medication is developed, tested, and prescribed, all on the basis of a patient’s individual genetic profile. Combined with an EHR and a personal genetic profile, a patient could be observed, screened, diagnosed, referred to a pharmacist, and able to order and receive a prescription, all without leaving home. Taking into consideration the growing need for medication therapy management—driven by the Baby Boomers living longer with more conditions under care—the value of such a high-tech system is clear.
This draws on what is perhaps the most lucrative (in terms of health outcomes and large-scale care delivery) set of possibilities enabled by the shift to digital: telemedicine. From consultations to check-ups, telehealth in the digital age no longer necessitates sacrificing face-to-face interaction; streaming video chat means patients and doctors can still look one another in the eye, albeit through the aid of cameras.
Proponents of the technology take it further, declaiming that world-class surgeons will no longer be anchored to a single facility—human-guided robotic surgery (telesurgery) will bring expertise to even the most remote locations.
If industry leaders anticipate so much being done remotely, why then are others squeamish about delivering an education online? It would seem that the medical skillset of the future requires greater comfort and competence in dealing with virtual settings, online interaction, and digital record-keeping.
The problem many have is not with online med school in particular so much as online degree programs in general. How can a virtual setting possibly hope to compete with the unique, collaborative, community-oriented environment of the college campus—whatever the area of study?
Forward-thinking professors like Sharon Stoerger at Rutgers have pioneered at least one possible answer to this question. Adopting the online immersive social platform known as Second Life, Stoerger and her like-minded peers have constructed virtual classrooms with accompanying courses, and successfully guided several cohorts (of students as well as instructors) through the experience.
For the aspects of learning that simply require hands-on practice, of course, there are limits to the promise of such virtual environments. Then again, synthetic patient models, known as Human Patient Simulators (HPS), are already proving their merits as an efficient, effective way to let students gain practical experience in a controlled environment. While Ohio Universityinstructors have pioneered the use of HPS in the school’s nursing programs, advancing technology continues to push the functional limits of such systems.
In order to realize the potential of modern delivery of patient care, we first need to realize the potential of modern instructional delivery. The technology is already showing that the real limits of online learning are not practical considerations; they are attitudes and assumptions about what learning ought to look like.
Edgar T. Wilson is a healthcare and policy analyst.