The in-Training Editors-in-Chief, Nihaal Mehta (NM) and Amelia Mackarey (AM), talked to Dr. Dustyn Williams (DW) and Jamie Fitch (JF), co-founders of OnlineMedEd — one of the most widely-used educational resources by medical students around the world — and two leading figures in shaping medical education. The conversation ranged from OnlineMedEd as a learning platform to Dustyn’s and Jamie’s philosophies on teaching and the future of medical student education.
In part one of the interview, we covered why medical school was one of the worst times in Dustyn’s life, and how his experience and Jamie’s background came together in the founding of OnlineMedEd. We also got a preview of what’s soon to come for the site.
JF: Dustyn sounds very tired, but he’s looking good.
DW: Mmm … microtubules … fascinating.
JF: Microtubules, yeah. I don’t know if you guys know but we’re doing basic sciences right now — Step 1. Dustyn’s doing essentially 18-hour shifts, just cranking through the basic sciences. Then he sleeps for six hours and he comes in and does it again.
DW: That’s on a good day.
AM: When is that going to be done?
JF: Umm … June 1st! *Laughs* We’ll be rolling out the first piece in May. Biochemistry’s all done, and we’re mostly done with immuno and micro. But we’re trying to do 350 lessons and … it’s challenging.
DW: I didn’t remember how painful it was studying for Step 1, and so I decided to volunteer myself to repeat studying for Step 1. But now [I’m studying] not just to pass it but enough to teach it to other people. So needless to say alpha- and beta-tubulin are right now on my brain.
JF: Dustyn’s shooting for the 290 this time! Anyway, thanks for taking the time to talk to us, guys.
NM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. We’re both medical students so we really appreciate what you guys do. I’ve used your videos throughout third year and Amelia’s at the end of second year, so I’m sure she can benefit from them when she’s doing her Step 1 studying.
AM: I wish that the Step 1 stuff was already done!
NM: And I wish I had it last year!
JF: That’s what we hear all the time, which is why we’re doing it: “I wish I had it,” or “I wish I knew”! Well, you probably know most of our backstory, though maybe not mine. I’m a clinical epidemiologist. I met Dustyn at Tulane where we both went for grad school. Kind of just a cousin, you know — looking at things from a population level instead of boots on the ground. But Dustyn and I, after we finished school, kind of went separate ways. I moved to Austin, Texas, and Dustyn stayed in New Orleans working for Tulane. We were starting to see a lot of the same problems — again, me from a population-point, really aggregating data, and Dustyn from his day-to-day interaction. And Dustyn had such a bad experience in medical school that he decided he wanted to make it better. So he just started creating content, putting it on Reddit, putting it on the internet, and getting feedback. It was mostly terrible but people came and used it.
DW: Yeah, you can’t find the original videos. There actually was a fire at Google. Weird, yeah.
JF: Archives.org just blew up. So, he kept working on that. Here in Austin, I ended up moving out of the hospital and into the tech scene here, using data as my launch point. Epidemiology is data and study design — that transcends any one field. And as I was doing that, Dustyn kept getting better, kept training, and eventually got to a point where he gave me a call, saying, “hey, I’m onto something here, maybe we should talk and see if we can make this into a full-fledged business and get it in front of more people.” And it’s been a ride ever since. It’s been about five years. We launched the paid product three and a half years ago, and now we have 80% of clinical students using the website, and we hope we can get that many in the basic sciences as well.
NM: That’s great. So, I’m curious, Dustyn, to your experience in medical school: What did you find was so terrible about it that prompted you to say something has to change, or we need to do something to improve this?
DW: First, I want to just stipulate that this was post-Katrina New Orleans, and actually Tulane did a really good job of providing us with whatever they could. Half of the professors left, research was catastrophically devastated, cell lines were lost because the power was out for so long. People couldn’t come back. I went down there as a paramedic thinking that I was going to impact the city and whatever, and I ended up doing nothing paramedic-related.
Med school sucks. I spent 18 hours a day, seven days a week studying my ass off. And I did great. I did excellent, but it was one of the worst times in my life. I did a lot of stuff — Tulane actually promoted students helping out, and so I got an award for TMedWeb, which is the website they still use to host their classes and reading assignments. I got Tulane to record lectures so, just in case there was another hurricane, we’d have lectures recorded. And I did NoteService¹, I ran it. But what I noticed was there was a lecture where I and my girlfriend (at the time) were the only two people there out of 200 … Because we were paid to be there to do the NoteService. Turns out that just because you’re a good doctor doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher.
And the final thing was in third year we had an OB/GYN lecture on contraception — this is in the Intern Guide if you want to read the story. Yaz was on TV — this was before the rings and implantables. I went in thinking, “I’m going to prescribe Yaz. It’s the only one I know.” And after two hours I left thinking, “I’m going to prescribe Yaz. It’s the only one I know.”
The dude was a brilliant lecturer. I mean, he had good board-work, he used colors and he had advanced organizers. But he was a reproductive endocrinologist and he was talking to third-year medical students. We went through this inane detail about everything about everything about everything. No one — no one — in that block went into OB/GYN.
The teachers aren’t taught how to teach. The people who are good usually get promoted to administrative or clinical research positions — and education falls to the wayside. I succeeded in spite of medical school, and I feel a lot of people do. And I wanted to change that. Medical school should be a place you go to actually learn, not get jaded.
Part two of our interview with Dr. Dustyn Williams and Jamie Fitch, co-founders of OnlineMedEd, is available here.
¹© Dustyn Williams, 2007