Continuing medical education: Why it’s important and how to make it effective

With the escalating pressures on hospitals, health care facilities, and practitioners to be cost-effective, it is increasingly difficult to justify spending money on education and training. Education and training are expensive when adding together the costs of curriculum development and educators. While finding the right person for the job is important in getting the job done, most, if not all, management would agree that the “right” person includes appropriate education, in addition to other factors like experience and the individual’s personality and character. Even though they recognize the importance of appropriate education in terms of degrees and licenses, continuing education is often forgotten. While some professions require continued education to meet licensing laws or maintain memberships in academic associations, such as physicians who require CME and periodic re-certification exams, not all professions have these requirements. And even then, state requirements differ, and the level of knowledge gained from each educational activity varies. With the vast amount of research and development occurring, keeping up-to-date with the latest development, skills, and newest technologies in the current ever-changing world of medicine is becoming a daunting task.

Health care is rapidly evolving, with new techniques, guidelines, protocols, and technologies.

Continuing education improves employee knowledge and better equips them to care for patients, and boosts employee confidence. Today’s health care professionals practice in a highly technological, multidisciplinary environment. In order to provide safe, effective, and high-quality patient care, collaboration is required among all professionals. Traditionally each profession has operated independently in regards to continued professional development. Continued education also improves staff morale and a sense of community that strives for excellence. This, in turn, improves productivity and patient outcomes while ensuring safe patient care around best practices.

In attempts to provide education and training to employees in an efficient and cost-effective way, hospitals and health care organizations often implement online modules. For example, most health care providers are familiar with the annual hand hygiene online training to be completed before the flu season hits or the annual training on identifying stroke symptoms. Although these courses convey knowledge and data, most health care providers are too busy and too tired to consciously go through the material and retain information. Furthermore, how relevant are these to all the employees, and does it improve the employees’ ability to do their jobs?

Implementing continuing education in health care requires investing in curriculum development and educators to teach the material that adapts to the needs of the employees.

1. Have an education curriculum developed that is up-to-date with evidence-based best practice.

Not only do professionals need a constantly updated curriculum, but there also needs to have a focus on interprofessional learning in the context of continuing professional development. Entry-level health care curriculum must introduce to all employees the concept of lifelong learning. Health care professionals at every stage of their career must continue to learn about advances in research, treatments, knowledge, and skills required to provide safe and effective patient care. It is the professional responsibility of the professional to keep abreast of technological changes and relevant medical knowledge.

2. Have an education department and qualified educators.

Having a qualified education department and educators is crucial. Having up-to-date, highly qualified educators and a supportive administration that values professional development can lead to greater collaboration and coordinated practice, enhanced safety, and quality care, lowered costs through effective utilization of resources, and improved clinical outcomes. Health care organizations should cultivate interprofessional education planning teams to incorporate multidisciplinary perspectives in designing educational activities.

3. Make sure all front-line workers are trained in the skills to do their job.

Make sure all front line workers are trained in the knowledge and skillset required for their jobs. Training and competency assessment needs to be targeted to daily practice and roles. One type of training is in-service educations, which is typically a review and refreshment of skill set acquired using devices and equipment. It is important to remember that the employee’s number one responsibility is to the patient and patient care; spending countless hours reading online modules are not very useful.

Active, hands-on simulation training is a useful pedagogy with immediate feedback, and debriefing has been shown to be more beneficial.  The preparatory learning before the experience allows the student or employee to obtain the theoretical foundation for the experience. The simulation itself allows learning in a safe environment fostering active learning. Utilizing a variety of simulations experiences will help to increase the competency of professionals newer in their career and validate the skill and knowledge of more experienced employees. Simulations with all members of the team that foster the multidisciplinary approach are more beneficial than table-top simulations with directors alone which ignore front line workers.

4. Adapt to the needs of the employees.

Employee education begins at onboarding with orientation.  Not only does orientation serve to provide exposure to the mission, vision, values of the organization, it is also a time for assessment of the skill and knowledge of the new hires.  In utilizing a personalized assessment tool, employers can target the needs of the new employees on an individualized level focusing on an individualized assessment of strengths and weaknesses.  A customized orientation will focus on energy and resources to areas that will help create a highly competent employee. To keep employees engaged, a variety of learning experiences need to be employed, adapting the learning experience to different learning styles—continued periodic review of skills and knowledge help to foster a culture of quality and safety.

In a world where medicine is driven by evidence-based practice and finances play an important part in health care operations, it is especially important to invest in continued education and training, which leads to improved patient outcomes and productivity, as well as increased employee satisfaction and retention.

Christine Lau is a physician. Collette Williams is a nurse educator.

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