Reform. Disrupt. Innovate. These words are undeniably components of today’s medical vernacular and as medical students we are positioned in the middle of a dynamic health care landscape.
The past few years have set forth a unique training phase for aspiring physicians. Medicine is evolving; not only from a legislative perspective, but also through a continually stronger relationship with technology that is driving human understanding into previously incomprehensible territory. We are improving treatment times in patients with critical neurovascular conditions such as ischemic stroke through enhanced catheterization techniques. Minimally invasive surgical equipment is improving operating room efficiencies, increasing clinical and economic value for patients. Health informatics is allowing researchers to perform macro-analysis of human health behaviors. One company is even engineering ‘digital pills’ to address patient medication adherence, a massive cost driver for insurance policies. New ideas are being developed into products and strategies each day.
Technology is not just changing how we administer medicine, it is changing how we learn it.
Mobile apps have previously allowed medical professionals to access vital reference information. But now the game is changing: technology titans Apple and Google are investing heavily in their health care segments. Apple informally announced to shareholders and consumers that they are increasing their focus on health care technology and improving health care efficiencies during the company’s special event in September. Specifically, two new apps — Airstrip and 3D4Medical — were presented.
That’s significant news, but what does this health care innovation mean for us medical students?
The unpredictable future of the health care industry was definitely a concern I had when I made the decision to attend medical school. Would I be able to keep up to speed with health care market trends, or would I remain stagnant, caught in the headwind of endless coursework?
As medical students we aspire to obtain as much value from our time as we can, particularly with respect to studying. I realize we are also limited in our ability to access available technology that is relevant to medical students (it will be a few years before I possess the skills to operate an advanced laparoscopic surgical device). For these reasons, I decided to explore disruptive health care start-up apps that have been proposed to enhance medical education. I found one app, in particular, that serves as an excellent example of how current innovation is disrupting the intricate task of acquiring, and applying, clinical knowledge.
Figure 1, a medical image app crowdsourced by health care professionals around the world, reached over half a million users in September. Figure 1 also reported that its cases have been viewed over one billion times since its initial release in 2013.
Figure 1’s expansive growth represents more than a successful implementation strategy of a health care start-up. By quantifying user traffic through the app, Figure 1 has substantiated just how much the health care profession is utilizing technological advancements.
I have observed some of Figure 1’s notable attributes while using it as a supplement to my medical education. The most beneficial component, in my experience, has been the ability to analyze cases presented through various imaging modalities such as X-rays, CT scans and MRIs. Using Figure 1 for evaluating imaging studies is more efficient than a basic Internet search of a condition for a few reasons. Many users upload entire scans, not just single images, so I am able to see complete multi-planar studies. Often these uploads include appropriate patient background information, allowing me to construct a differential diagnosis to guide my learning. Access to a surplus of radiographs on the go is extraordinarily useful for studying clinical anatomy and pathology, and provides a different perspective than traditional medical school coursework.
Figure 1 not only gives me access to thousands of virtual cases, but the app provides me with the experiences of medical professionals from around the world, including patient history and analyzing cases. When I mention experiences, I am referring to the comments on each case, an open source dialogue between students and health care professionals at all stages in their careers. I read how specialists, nurses and therapists would approach the case.
This self-guided case analysis offers me an opportunity to frame my outlook on patient care: What are the right questions? What should I be considering to provide a complete diagnosis for this patient? Are other health care professionals discussing specific complications of the current treatment regimen, or is it just me?
Medical education can be broken down into two categories: coursework learning and patient experience. As I am sure most medical students, residents, and physicians could tell you, there is a significant difference between memorizing pathophysiology and actually observing, and treating, patients who present various conditions. There are also certainly differences between physically interacting with patients and viewing images of cases. However, I believe Figure 1 gives students the opportunity to narrow this gap by opening our mobile textbooks to an entire world of potential patients — literally.
As a medical student in the United States, the chances that I will see a case of typhoid fever, or a traumatic wound caused by a wild bushpig (a real case), are rare. Even if I did, I might not be aware of the best treatment methods, or more importantly, how such a condition is treated in a rural region. Figure 1 has essentially created a new market through which health care professionals in countries with extremely different patient populations can have an informal dialogue about a case through online comments.
Figure 1 has taken this concept further by establishing its first ‘Live Event’ in early October. During the 24-hour event, one case was uploaded each hour to the app from the flagship hospital of a massive health care network in India. This educational event was designed to demonstrate challenging cases health care professionals in India face, and invoked users to develop diagnoses using the provided relevant patient history and symptoms. Further, users were able to get a glimpse of the technology accessible to the hospital, how the hospital treats the cases it receives and how health care systems in a different country function.
All of these features contribute to a well-rounded medical education and are only some of the benefits technological innovation affords. Our inherent responsibility as medical students is to absorb as much information from our environment as we can, with the understanding that what we learn now will allow us to provide the highest quality of care to our patients, real-life actual human beings, down the road. I believe supplementing medical school coursework with real patient cases is critical for enhancing application and diagnosis competence. Figure 1 is only one app out of a growing network of startups that I have found indispensable to my medical education.
Our world is becoming an increasingly complex meshwork of cultures, technologies and ideas. Disrupting traditional methods of medical education is just beginning at the macro level: Institutions are drastically changing their curriculums, patient simulations are becoming more human and there is even a new MCAT exam that includes sections on humanities and psychology.
Medical students must navigate the unsteady waters of our health care system and establish new methods of training. Taking time to stay at the leading-edge of health care innovation, such as exploring apps like Figure 1, among many others, might stimulate our perspectives of health care around the world and enhance our training. We do not know what the future topography of health care will look like. We do, however, have a historical opportunity to influence the direction health care takes in this country.