Health care’s tech renaissance during the pandemic extends to medical training

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in at least 25 million cases worldwide with a continued spread in the United States, causing global disruption in every sector of society and forcing adaptation to a new normal relying increasingly on technology. Even in the medical field, where there is a pervasive and persistent traditionalist approach to technology adoption, many of the barriers have been overcome. When we reflect back on this life-changing pandemic, we will see how it accelerated advancements in medical practice and education.

In 2014, resistance to change and innovation was evidenced by the uproar during the mandated transition to electronic health records. Even in telemedicine, introduced in an early form in the 1950s, only 42 percent of hospitals and 15 percent of family physicians were utilizing telehealth as of 2018. Supported in part by major changes to the reimbursement structure of telehealth, adoption drastically changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic, frontline emergency and intensive care units across the world implemented surge responses concurrent with a massive reduction in outpatient clinic visits and elective surgeries. Patient access dropped dramatically, and health systems quickly responded with new technologies, both to provide better access to care and to dampen the financial shortfall. Many of the previous barriers dissolved practically overnight, resulting in the exponential growth of virtual health visits and telemedicine, necessitating individuals, health care organizations, and medical societies to rapidly adapt and become more digitally literate. This forced adoption is a wake-up call for the industry to realize the potential that advanced technologies hold both in reaching patients and ensuring the education of health care professionals remains current.

Despite the tendency for slow adoption, in recent years, we have seen an explosion of innovation in the health care space, but utilization has been limited to a select few. Examples include artificial intelligence analyzing big data and decision support tools at the point of care; robot-assisted surgery; and augmented and virtual reality for practicing complex surgeries on individualized, digital patients, then performing the surgery with patient data overlaid in real-time to create the digital operating room of the future. We have a world of digital therapeutics, including virtual reality used for pain management and the FDA approval of a video game to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These examples of technology in health care are poised to greatly improve health outcomes, but are still only utilized by a small fraction of the health care community that continues to fight adoption of new technologies, often due to lack of familiarity or comfort with the new platforms, lack of access to technology resources, and perceived costs.

In-person gatherings face heavy restrictions, and our education system has ground to a halt, forcing many to provide innovative solutions such as teleconferencing, collaborative learning platforms, and even collaborative gaming platforms, or risk facing massive learning loss. In medical education, the pandemic has disrupted a system that traditionally relied on an antiquated method of in-person lectures combined with in-hospital clinical experience, a system recalcitrant to change. Nowhere was this more evident than the traditional lecture, where going from projector slides to presentation software slides was as far as technology advanced over three decades. Medical education has too long suffered from this drag of slow technology adoption: The time is now for medical education to embrace the realities of the 21st century.

Just as the pandemic has forced massive technology adoption in the delivery of care, we will see the rapid, widespread implementation of innovative solutions that medical education has desperately needed for years. Technologies like computer-based training, adaptive learning using artificial intelligence, video game-based learning, and extended reality such as virtual reality and augmented reality can close the educational gap. Virtual colonoscopies can be practiced 100 times before touching an actual patient. Many companies innovating in this space are seeing tremendous market interest in the wake of the pandemic. Most of these new technology-based educational tools can be used remotely, synchronously, or asynchronously, often without a teacher or proctor present. Although training will always require clinical experience, innovations at the bedside will also provide a major advantage over the traditional educational path. Hence learning can continue, and learning losses minimized. This is the way forward for most, if not all, institutions in the foreseeable future, and institutions that adopt these technological solutions will outpace those that resist.

This time to innovate is now. Medical education has needed to leverage new technologies for decades, and just as the pandemic forced technology adoption in health care, it will also create an opportunity to transform health care education. Education needs to be less reliant on in-person, passive, lecture-based curricula, and we ask that all faculty and institutions be bold, be innovative, and be open to change. The gauntlet is set for companies to create meaningful solutions that facilitate the technology revolution that is upon us. Whether or not schools and universities open this Fall, or elective surgeries rise to the level they once were, we will see this pandemic as a force function of technology adoption in the medical field, one that will noticeably change the way that medical care is taught and practiced.

Eric Gantwerker is a pediatric otolaryngologist. 

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