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The evolving landscape of medical education

With new stakeholders, multimedia channels and budget constraints, medical education is changing fast
The evolving landscape of medical education

What do we mean by 'medical education'?
The term 'medical education' traditionally refers to any activity designed to develop, maintain or expand the awareness, understanding, skills or performance of healthcare professionals (HCPs). While, of course, basic medical education begins and ends in medical school or university, for all qualified HCPs the need to learn about advances in their therapeutic fields continues throughout their professional careers. 

This is where medical education, both accredited and non-accredited, plays a critical role. In recent years, the term 'medical education' has also been expanded to include activities designed for other key healthcare stakeholders, such as patients and payers. 

A series of educational tools designed to encourage patients to remember to take their medications can therefore also be considered to be 'medical education' despite the fact that it is not targeted at the medical profession. 

What principles are guiding medical education programmes?
There are a number of key principles that should be kept in mind when designing and implementing medical education programmes. 

Firstly, in order to benefit from training, learners must be willing to learn and understand what they need to learn. This can be addressed by clearly defining the learning objectives for any educational activity and requesting feedback on what the learners believe they need to learn and weaving this into the programme. 

Learners must be willing to learn and understand what they need to learn …

Secondly, to best utilise optimal adult learning styles, the training must allow the learner to experience what is being taught rather than merely sitting and listening. This means that, at 'live' events or meetings, plenary sessions should be mixed with group discussions and practical exercises to allow learnt concepts to be applied to everyday situations. In the case of printed educational materials, practical exercises, case studies and quizzes can be used to promote retention of learnt concepts. 

Thirdly, the learner has to respect the teacher. In the context of medical education, this means that training delivered by key thought leaders (KTLs) is often the most effective. 

Finally, the learner needs to believe that the information he is receiving is unbiased. All agencies, and their industry partners, should always strive to maintain high ethical standards when it comes to designing and implementing medical education programmes. 

Who are we trying to educate?
Traditionally, the primary target for medical education has been physicians. However, significant changes in the way in which our healthcare systems work have meant that other important recipients for medical education are emerging, including specialist nurses, pharmacists, patients, carers and even payers. 

With these different audiences comes the need for different channels to deliver medical education. While educational symposia and peer-reviewed publications might be an effective way of delivering medical education to physicians, printed 'enduring materials', digital resources and remote learning options often have a better reach when delivering education to nurses, pharmacists, patients and carers. 

An effective medical education programme evaluates who needs to be 'educated' and targets specific educational messages to these stakeholders through the most appropriate communication channels. 

Are all learners the same?
In 1986, Honey and Mumford proposed that there were four main adult learning styles1: activist; reflector; theorist; and pragmatist. Effective medical education must speak to all of these different types of adult learner. 

  • An activist needs variety to sustain interest; he enjoys collaborative group learning and will respond well to team-based breakout sessions and varied agendas 
  • A reflector likes to hear other people's opinions; he needs time for reflection and thus group discussion sessions and relaxed agendas are key 
  • A theorist likes to be challenged by complex ideas in the context of a clear structure and purpose; he enjoys applying learning to practical situations and will be a keen participant in interactive case study-based training 
  • A pragmatist likes practical tips and experience; he enjoys agendas that discuss common practical problems and how to overcome them, as well as hand-on sessions with relevant technologies. 

By providing this variety in the way in which medical education is delivered, even within a single training event, attendees as a whole are more likely to retain the educational messages that are being communicated.

How has the digital era affected medical education?
Given the recent explosion in our society of all things digital, it is perhaps not surprising that digital media are now frequently being used to deliver medical education. Everyone is turning to the internet and other digital resources to find out more about recent advances in healthcare. As such, the internet is becoming an important way of engaging HCPs.

With different audiences there is a need for different channels of education

Scientific symposia are now often also broadcast as webcasts and/or podcasts, online services have sprung up that deliver concise research updates via RSS feeds, and online training modules deliver education 24/7. 

The internet is also becoming an important way of engaging with patients and their carers, and a growing number websites offer forums for patients to share their experiences and download practical and educational tools, such as treatment diaries, information leaflets and medication reminder tools. 

The digital delivery of medical education has an important advantage over other media: it is easy to collect information about the individuals taking part in the training – their experience, their awareness and/or understanding of certain topics and their opinions on controversial issues. This can allow you to tailor training programmes or track any shifts in awareness or opinions as a result of these programme in a timely manner. It is also invaluable when demonstrating return on investment (ROI) for these activities. 

How much can we allow medical education to be defined by strategy?
As mentioned, identifying who you need to educate is a key step, as is choosing the right people to deliver the training. It is also important to understand what your different audiences need to be educated about, crafting and delivering appropriate educational messages through the best communication channels at the right time. 

When medical education is sponsored by industry, it is also critical that the medical education delivered addresses educational needs in a manner sensitive to the commercial strategies for the products marketed by the industry partner. 

Perhaps there are clinical unmet needs that present a rationale for a new class of drugs or approach to patient management, and highlighting these can be of strategic, as well as educational, importance. 

Physicians involved in educational programmes need to be given the freedom to express their own opinions and highlight what they believe the audience needs to know. Therefore, working with KTLs to ensure they understand the commercial objectives behind the educational initiative, as well as the unmet educational needs, and offering support in developing fair-balanced and effective programmes, is one area in which healthcare communications agencies can bring value to their clients. 

Above all, transparency is key. 

What should we do in the face of budget cuts?
Across the board, pharmaceutical/medical device companies are cutting their budgets. As a result, there is increasing pressure both to deliver cost-effective programmes and to demonstrate ROI on these activities. What impact does this have on medical education? 

Firstly, it makes it even more important to think strategically about who you need to educate and how to reach them. One thoughtfully designed educational activity will always have more impact than a series of activities that doesn't reach the right audiences. 

Secondly, it means that all activities need to be linked with clear objectives and well-defined measures of success. Defining key performance indicators (KPIs) and tracking success against these provides the information needed to justify budget spend. 

Finally, healthcare communications agencies need to become more creative in the way in which they deliver medical education, such as developing online training modules vs. 'live' educational meetings, so costs are minimised without hindering the impact of the programme. 

“These days, we face many challenges when developing and delivering effective medical education: constrained budgets, busier-than-ever target audiences and competing 'noise' from every angle, among others. But this means that healthcare communications agencies are becoming more innovative, more focused and more driven to find ways to effectively develop engaging and impactful educational programmes that advance clinical practice. And that can only be a good thing.” – Miranda Dini, managing partner, Axon Communications.

Article by
Shanida Nataraja

editorial & scientific director at Axon Communications. She can be contacted at

15th April 2013

From: Marketing



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