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Encouraging Medical Students to Develop Mobile Apps

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“I believe the best medical education apps should only serve to offer a new medium to bring the same high-quality information from the same excellent educators to the same eager students, simply in a more efficient and approachable manner.” - Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University student and mobile app creator, Edward Re.

The following GIR Viewpoint was created with input from the following individuals:

Chanel Fischetti, medical student at University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine
Shiv Gaglani, medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Ryan Haynes, medical student at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Edward Re, medical school at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University
Warren Wiechmann, M.D., M.B.A., Faculty Director of Instructional Technologies and Assistant Clinical Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine

Well before entering medical school, students have become accustomed to their laptops, tablets, and mobile devices including various education oriented applications. Their use has become an expectation by learners. As these apps change the medical learning environment, the opportunity for innovation is ripe. Across a number of medical schools, faculty members are adapting to be just as much a part of this change as their students and are encouraging their creative and even entrepreneurial spirits.

At a number of medical schools, faculty are creating new teaching programs to facilitate not only the use, but the creation of apps. “Initially we were trying to just figure out what they [medical students] could use… When we started doing our iPad program, a lot of what they were doing for us was curating content. Looking for the best apps out there. But, as in any group there is a small subset that started asking probing questions like ‘this app is good but, XYZ this is what I would fix’ or ‘I wish there was an app that did this,’ and then there were those that went, ‘if only had time to learn how to code, I would fix this problem," Warren Wiechmann, M.D., M.B.A., Faculty Director of Instructional Technologies and Assistant Clinical Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine, recalls.

Wiechmann pointed out obvious gaps that students, and other faculty members have experienced in recent years. The market for medical education apps exists, but to make the best apps, knowing how to code, having the content knowledge and user experience savviness along with pedagogical skills and opportunity recognition all need to be combined. Combining all of these skillsets takes the talent of entrepreneurial professionals with the necessary drive that are able to generate fresh perspectives.

“A lot of the students right now believe there is a big gap… ‘I really want to get into this but I am not a coder so I am going to stop there.’ I don’t think they realize how easy it is to get into that creation space,” says Wiechmann, “I try and push them there… They need to take a leap of faith from just having an idea to turning it into something tangible,” says Wiechmann, “medical students in general are used to doing everything on their own - that is what got them here. If they are brought together with the right people, as possibly a consultant or as part of a team they can break the model that has been hammered into them for years that they have to do things on their own.”

Some students, like Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes, both medical students at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, have gone from studying medical concepts to becoming the co-founders of the app Osmosis. Osmosis is a web- and mobile-learning platform that was designed to overcome the constant “cram-and-forget” cycles that co-founders Gaglani and Haynes believed were negatively affecting their overall studies. “Ryan and I realized that we and our classmates were forgetting important concepts almost as quickly as we were learning them… Given our research backgrounds, we decided to look into cognitive techniques such as the testing effect, spaced repetition, peer teaching, and others that could be used to improve our understand and retention of important medical concepts.” From this idea, Osmosis has grown from a 240 student base to a global user base of nearly 15,000 medical students. “It’s a great time to be innovating in medical education,” says Haynes, “since everyone from medical school administrators to faculty to students seem to be talking about improving the system.”

Faculty don’t always need to be app gurus to be effective advocates of the digital classroom. Faculty can be the bridge that connects their students to innovation spaces. Initially, they can look within their fellow faculty for those who have already embraced technology and engage them. This does not only include faculty within the medical field but connecting with peers in other departments such as engineering schools and technology departments. This was the inspiration behind University of California, Irvine’s Med AppJam  - a 14 day long tournament where teams create a fully functional mobile app related to the medical field. Developed by connecting across departments, this unique competition has become a success moving towards its third year with noteworthy sponsors such as Canon and Western Digital

Wiechmann, who was one of the initial proponents of Med AppJam and currently helps organize the competition, suggests to look beyond faculty peers to students and residents. “There is a resistance to give these individuals platforms because they are students or residents. We need to get rid of that preconceived notion that students or residents cannot be good teachers or role models on these things.”

How can faculty encourage more students to participate in this space? “Overall, the best ways to help students explore this potential for innovation is by providing them with opportunities to connect with other undergrads, grads, or trade students. Healthcare is all about teamwork, and I have definitely found that the same goes for app development,” says University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine student Chanel Fischetti. Fischetti was part of a team that developed an app called TheraConnect, an app for teenagers and adults on the autism spectrum.  Individuals used it as a social networking tool to connect with others who share their same interests and needs.  

“Great mentors definitely add a lot to the success of a project. Often, mentors have been through experiences and can provide you with knowledge about ideas, business, projects that you otherwise would have never known about,” says Fischetti.

“Physicians that are going to be successful within their patient population and more globally successful are very much more involved in the public space. That could mean a public presence in social media, interacting with patents or other educators, writing for a blog or traditional media, or apps or devices which is where medicine needs to go. That involves physicians getting out of their comfort zone because that is where our patents are,” says Wiechmann.


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