Is medical education app-happy?

There’s an app. for that!

Dr. Manish Ranpara

I was recently browsing my mobile’s application store for applications to help me prepare for my upcoming medical examinations. I was rather surprised (and pleased!) to see a vast array of medical applications available on the market. Applications for drug calculations, anatomy demonstrations, pathology quizzes and clinical case studies were among the many applications available to download at the click of a button.

Medical education was once largely a pedantic, classroom based endeavor. Over the years, it has evolved significantly to become the multidimensional model we know today. Universities from around the world employ several methods of teaching, from classic large group lecturing and small group tutoring where physical presence is required, to virtual classrooms and online lectures where students can learn from a remote coffee shop. Some universities have even tapped into the mobile application craze and offer some services such as recorded lectures through them.

Apart from student and physician education, medical applications have found their way into the pockets of patients. Several exist to help the general population understand and treat their disease better; from applications which track glucose monitoring in diabetics to applications which provide cognitive behavior therapy for depression.

While it is humbling to see the progression of medical education through the digital era,  it does raise some concerns. The internet and indeed the application world remains a largely unregulated domain. Consequently, a lot of questionable material exists in this brave new virtual world. Ethical dilemmas include the following: Can and should a doctor be allowed to create a medical application which has the capacity to reach millions of users including the general public without the application undergoing peer review? Is it acceptable to provide medical education for free using technology when enrollment to a university is required to obtain a degree? What codes of practice apply to research done through mobile applications and virtual enrollment? These are all interesting and complex questions which we should try to answer as we venture to the unknown world of tomorrow, armed with a stethoscope and a mobile phone/computer.

As we rapidly advance through the digital age (where politicians and business leaders are debating artificial intelligence), it is crucial for our profession to keep pace with the exciting and challenging changes of technology. While I believe that a greater investment in digital understanding should be made by stakeholders in the medical field it is also vital to support patient safety by leading the way in setting regulations and standards for the dissemination of medical information exploding through the proliferation of commercial apps. It’s never been more appropriate to say: ‘There’s an app. for that’ – but is it a good one?

Dr. Manish Ranpara trained at Cardiff University, UK. After working as a doctor for 2 years in England, he immigrated to Canada. He was involved in research at the University of Calgary, and he is currently a family medicine resident affiliated with the University of Toronto. You may find him in an exercise class, reading a classic,  or singing his heart away (earplugs not provided).