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A conversation about digital literacy in medical education

A strong advocate for including digital literacy in medical education, self-described "geek medical futurist" Bertalan Meskó, MD, PhD, believes that online communication tools, such as social media, can improve the way medicine is practiced and health care is delivered. His interest in technology and health care led him to create a university course focusing on bringing the web into medical practice and to launch Webicina, which offers curated social media resources in 140 topics and 20 languages for patients and medical professionals for free.

In September, Meskó will lead a Master Class on how to teach social media in the context of health sciences as part of the Stanford Medicine X conference. Interested to know more about the class, I contacted him to discuss his approach for incorporating digital literacy into medical school curriculum. Below he discusses, among other things, top trends in social media and health care and why medical professionals should take an evidence-based approach to social media.

Why do you believe that medical students and professionals should engage in social media?

Being a medical professional means we constantly have to communicate with patients, our peers and even with information. Since social media is now an integrated part of communication, medical professionals must deal with this as well. [It's] the responsibility of doctors to deal with e-patients properly and use the Internet in a meaningful and efficient way.

It is getting more complicated to keep ourselves up-to-date and get medical answers when we have really hard questions, but social media can be useful if used with strategy and design. This is why we have to teach how to properly use these tools.

During a 2011 keynote speech at Doctors 2.0 & You, you advocated for health-care providers to take an evidence-based approach to social media. Can you explain why this strategy is important and how you use it in your own practice?

Including social media solutions in any industry can be a fast and efficient process, but medicine works in a different way. I was trained to embrace evidence-based medicine and I use that approach when teaching social media. There are platforms and solutions that might be fantastic and useful in health care, although sometimes when these are tested in practice, they fail compared to traditional methods.

By using the evidence-based approach, I mean that we should not include something immediately in medicine just because it is about social media... We have to test everything to make sure it’s truly useful.

What are some of the top trends you’re seeing in social media and health care?

Platforms come and go. I’m glad to see that trends are now more about meaningful use. There are fewer medical mobile apps downloaded, and people spending their precious time online seem to use the web in a more efficient way. If I have to mention certain trends, I would say Twitter seems to be the top platform for communication; gamification seems to be the best way to motivate students (the Septris app is a good example); people tend to realize they need to know their communities if they want to crowdsource medical questions; and curation of social media is key; while wearable technologies such as Google Glass will definitely add new practices to using social media.

But the practice of medicine must still take place in real life, and these digital technologies can only be useful after an established relationship between the patient and the doctor.

In 2008, you introduced the Social Media in Medicine course at the University of Debrecen, Medical and Health Science Center in Hungary. In creating the course, what was your process for selecting which topics and platforms to cover?

I was lucky from two perspectives. First, I tried and evaluated all the social-media platforms myself - from Wikipedia to medical blogging to crowdsourcing a diagnosis on Twitter. Second, the university committee gave me a chance [for this pilot class] to make decisions about the content. Since every student filled in online surveys before and after each semester, I’ve got a lot of data based on which changes I made to the curriculum. Due to the basic nature of social media, I must constantly change some parts of the content to meet today’s expectations.

I wanted to show the medical use of a range of social platforms and also wanted to transmit concepts to the students. This is why I launched the course with a series of 13 lectures [on topics ranging] from using e-mails to the future of web.

How has the Social Media in Medicine curriculum evolved over the past five years?

Last year, I moved the course to Semmelweis University, a medical school with over 240 years of history. Now it runs with full house every semester in English and Hungarian. The curriculum represents today’s social media trends (in 2008, I mentioned Twitter in a lecture, now a whole week is dedicated to microblogging) and I also implemented some new approaches.

As all the students in the course are on Facebook, this semester they worked for bonus points on the Facebook page of the course by answering questions about digital literacy every single day. The winner did not have to take the exam last week.

The course has a website where all the lectures, hand-outs and notes are available and students can take tests.

Moreover, using my large social network I try to get a prototype of every important development in medical technology, such as AliveCor ECG and other devices. Students can use these in practice; I really try to train them for the world of technological advances by the time they graduate from medical school.

How would you advise medical schools to encourage students and educators to proactively use social media?

The only way to fill health care with technology-savvy medical professionals is to train them like that. Therefore I don’t think that encouragement is the best solution - but first digital literacy should be included in the medical curriculum as well as in post-graduate education.

Maintaining an exemplary social-media presence is certainly a good start for medical schools. But to persuade students and educators to proactively use social media, good practical examples have to be demonstrated to them. In my experience, this is the best strategy.

What specific tips can you share for medical educators who want to leverage the power of social media by incorporating interactive content into existing curriculum?

For this, educators should first check the digital landscape of the topics they teach by searching for relevant content, resources and even mobile apps. They should listen to other educators who are already active online.

The most important thing here is a quote I’ve been using for years: “If you want to teach me, you first have to reach me.” Therefore I love going to the platforms that my students are already using. This semester it was Facebook, and I managed to teach them and test their knowledge on that platform. It was a real win-win situation.

All medical educators should design a new approach in transmitting the knowledge to students by analyzing what they do online. We do the same thing in the offline world by coming up with new textbooks and creating engaging presentations - why would we not do that online as well?

Previously: The importance of curation and communities when crowdsourcing clinical questions, A new social media course for physicians, Webicina founder Bertalan Mesko discusses digital literacy and Medicine 2.0, ScienceRoll: What happens when pharma companies edit Wikipedia? and ScienceRoll’s 2011 predictions for technology in medicine
Photo by Stanford EdTech

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