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Doctors of the Digital Age: How Medical Students Navigate Technology

4/6/2017 Robert S. Porter, MD, Editor-in-Chief, The MSD Manuals

One look around the show floor at the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Annual Convention was enough to signal how pervasive technology has become. Students downloaded the show schedule to their phones, snapped pictures with their favorite speakers and shared their experiences with friends on social media.

Of course, this is no surprise. Technology is woven into the fabric of young people’s lives and in turn, their medical education. They have grown up accustomed to using technology resources unavailable to, and even unimaginable by, previous generations of physicians.

The Manuals team spoke with hundreds of medical and premedical students at AMSA and surveyed 180 of them about how they use technology to facilitate their education.

Raised on Digital

This next generation of physicians was brought up with information at their fingertips—often starting at a young age. Our survey found that 68% of students received their first cell phone by the time they were 14 years old. For many students, this is before they enter high school.

And online tools have become ingrained into their study habits. About half (48%) said they go online or use a mobile device to search for medical information more than 11 times per day. And nearly one in three (30%) search online more than 20 times per day. 

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Nearly all students surveyed (99%) affirmed that the digital age has impacted their medical education, mostly for the better. However, 9% of students indicated that technology is primarily a distraction to learning, especially when social media and other potential distractions are just a click away.

“On a daily basis, students are constantly accessing their phones and tablets,” said George, a student from the University of Central Florida. “I go online while studying to look up quick answers and do further research on a topic. It’s easier to carry around a phone or tablet than a textbook, and I can more quickly find the right answers to questions.”

Students were also asked to rank their preferred sources of medical information. For their first choice, 47% picked Google. And 32% chose a medical website, often those that appeared in the Google results. Only 7% turned first to their textbook!

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“We live in a high-speed world,” said David, student from Hillsborough Community College in Florida. “In the time it takes me to walk through a library door, I could have already downloaded exactly what I needed on my phone.”

Facing Off Against Fake News

Yet students understand the internet can be a minefield when it comes to finding reliable information; 83% said confirming the credibility of an online source is one of the primary obstacles they face while searching for medical information online.

Other hurdles students say they encounter include pay walls (39%), the recent surge in fake news (32%), and an overabundance of ads (24%).

Boosting Visual Learning

Although social media is potentially a distractor, many students (45%) have found YouTube a valuable resource for more visually compelling medical content.

At David’s chapter of AMSA, member students mentor high school students who are interested in the medical field, and they find visual learning tools to be very effective.

“A challenge we face in mentoring our high school students is finding material that we can easily translate into language a high schooler would understand,” he said. “So we look for video resources. Our students have a harder time focusing on a massive medical textbook, but if I can put an app or video in their hands that takes 2 to 3 minutes, it’s a fantastic way to make complex material more tangible for them.”

Paradox of Abundant Resources

There clearly is no lack of resources for medical students in the digital age. But this plethora brings with it an interesting conundrum. More students use Google, the wildest of the wild-west sources, as their #1 resource while simultaneously stating that confirming the credibility of what they find is their biggest problem.

This is a brand new issue. In days past, the only resources were massive physician-authored textbooks and the well-curated contents of medical libraries. Then, the validity of these resources never crossed students’ mind (price and weight, perhaps, but never accuracy). Now, it is the main problem students say they face. It’s like the difference between young cubs being fed by their mother and them leaving the safety of the den to hunt in the wild—they’re free to seek what suits them, but dangers abound. The fact that this problem exists is concerning, but we can be a little reassured by the fact that students recognize it as a problem.

It is up to us, as educators and academics, to ensure that we make available the high-quality, accurate digital resources that students need and also help students identify resources on which they can rely.