Year : 2021 | Volume
: 9 | Issue : 1 | Page : 12--15
Digital health, learner competence, and a pandemic: The storm I had been waiting for
Lyn K Sonnenberg
Associate Dean, Educational Innovation & Academic Technologies, Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, University of Alberta; Neurodevelopmental Pediatrician, Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Dr. Lyn K Sonnenberg
1-128A, Katz Group Centre for Research, 11315 87 Ave NW, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2H5
|How to cite this article:|
Sonnenberg LK. Digital health, learner competence, and a pandemic: The storm I had been waiting for.Arch Med Health Sci 2021;9:12-15
|How to cite this URL:|
Sonnenberg LK. Digital health, learner competence, and a pandemic: The storm I had been waiting for. Arch Med Health Sci [serial online] 2021 [cited 2022 Jan 29 ];9:12-15
Available from: https://www.amhsjournal.org/text.asp?2021/9/1/12/319370
The Perfect Storm
As I reflect on where I find myself as a clinician-educator and administrator today, I cannot help but draw parallels to the blockbuster movie by the same name. It has been more than 20 years since I watched it in theater upon its release, but the metaphor came back all too quickly. Based on a true story, the storyline unfolds as a group of fishermen seek out one final catch of the season, only to be caught at the confluence of two powerful weather fronts and a hurricane. For me, the two powerful weather fronts are digital health, using technology to help improve individuals' health and wellness, and learner competence, the possession of required skill, knowledge, qualification, or capacity. And the hurricane? You guessed it. The COVID-19 pandemic.
We need competent health-care professionals who, upon graduation, are ready to transition into the world of clinical practice and deliver quality health care, safely and compassionately. We thought we had the educational tools we needed for this task. Then the world changed. Isolation measures drove the need for virtual health care at a rate that was previously unprecedented, shifting in-person visits to online delivery practically overnight. This was particularly striking because change and adoption procedures are typically well calculated and planned prior to delivery (at least in principle). While telehealth/virtual health infrastructure was present prior to the global pandemic, it lacked integration with our clinical practices and regulatory barriers created challenges., The pandemic changed all that. Even emergency medicine, a specialty that in my mind is pseudonymous with face-to-face delivery, has remarked that the pandemic has brought forth “the dawn of mainstreaming virtual care.”, It seems unlikely these innovations will simply disappear postpandemic. Our patient community is not interested in returning to the prepandemic status quo, with its access limitations, now that the proverbial “genie is out of the bottle.”, So, as medical educators we have to ask ourselves, how are we preparing to meet these changes and preparing our learners for digital health integration into clinical practice?
Driving Home the Issue
Health professions education is well steeped in the apprenticeship model. But what happens when the medium of health delivery is new to both the teacher and the learner? The old adage, which makes many an educator shudder, “see one, do one, teach one,” is based on the premise that we learn by seeing, then doing, and finally by passing that learning along to the next learner. What happens, however, when there is no one after whom to model ideal care? What are the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to deliver basic virtual care, never mind exceptional care? It is not as simple as transferring in-person clinical skills to the virtual environment. By analogy, just because I can drive a car in rural parts of Canada doesn't mean I can drive it well in Delhi, India. The conditions are different. The fact the two countries drive on different sides of the road is challenging in and of itself, but sources of cognitive load will also vary, from having children arguing in the back seat (a hypothetical example, of course) to reading unfamiliar street signs in a more congested environment.
Now let's extend this model to the clinical learner. As practicing clinicians, we assume that our “Millennial” learners are technology literate and, therefore, will know how to manage the technological aspects of the clinical encounter easily
Contrary to popular opinion, Millennials are not all tech-savvy, a socially constructed and unfortunate myth that continues to be perpetuated. As educators, we must take into consideration the need for contextual competence, the ability to adjust to new settings, which is often overlooked in current training models. Merely thinking that by moving a learner, who is competent in an in-person clinical encounter, to a virtual environment, without any preparation or support, downplays the complexity of the situation. Too often as educators, we fail to realize that the learner's cognitive load, the multiple demands on one's working memory, is heavy. The weight of a new virtual health environment must be considered, when intertwined with the medical expert, communicator, and other roles they are learning to master and stresses they are carrying. We must further acknowledge that there may be even greater complexity when considering technology such as fluency with apps, wearables, and digital exchanges with patients through registered portals or other digital means, which may also require mastery and integration beyond the traditional clinical encounter/appointment. As a seasoned clinician-educator, who specializes in the intersectionality of technology and learning, I find myself overwhelmed, so I can only imagine how difficult this would be for those whose career is less focused in this area. Therefore, we need to carefully determine which competencies are needed to successfully navigate a virtual health-care encounter, while promoting a healthy learning and working environment.
As a result of these changing times, there is a growing gap between what learners need to do upon entering practice and the training we provide them. The concept of adaptive expertise, “the flexible use of knowledge and the ability to generate new solutions and learn from daily problem solving,” is helpful here because it is based upon the premise that individuals will learn and innovate in response to practice challenges., To foster adaptive expertise in our learners, we need to shift their learning beyond retention and direct their application toward preparation for future learning. As educators, therefore, we need to challenge learners to go deeper in their learning by asking the harder questions of why and what if, allowing them to embrace struggle and discovery in their learning to help them develop the capabilities of a Master Adaptive Learner. This will allow learners to thrive in the ever-changing health-care environment upon entering practice, of which technology will play a significant role. So how do we manage when both mentor and protégé are feeling their way through uncharted waters? We navigate these changing times together.
The Eye of the Storm
The learner and teacher are essential components to the learning process, both playing an active role; for the teacher that means no longer needing to be the “oracle who speaks from the platform of authority, but rather the guide, the pointer-out, who also participates in learning.” Because this learning occurs in the context of health-care provision, patients must also play a key role in the equation, with their health-care needs being balanced with the needs of learners, who must grapple with the learning process to reach their full potential. Herein lies the inevitable tension between clinical service delivery and learning; how can the priorities of both the learner and the patient take center stage? Situated learning theory, “where learning is situated within a specific place and time and involves interacting within a community of practice,” may provide new ways of thinking. Here, the importance of social interactions, and active participation in learning, centers around the mutual goals, objectives, and interests of community members. The tension is not seen as good or bad, but rather part of the learning experience. Recognizing that patients are equal partners in this learning experience changes the dynamics from being in competition to now being in partnership. This notion of partnership is highlighted in both social accountability, “the obligation [of medical schools] to direct their education, research and service activities towards addressing the priority health concerns of the community, region, and/or nation they have a mandate to serve,” and person-centered care, “a way of thinking and doing things that sees the people using health and social services as equal partners in planning, developing and monitoring care to make sure it meets their needs.”,, This means putting patients/people at the center of decisions and seeing them as experts, working alongside learners and teachers, to get the best outcomes, thereby resolving the tension.
The therapeutic relationship between a health-care provider and a patient is the cornerstone of compassionate care, the human connection between patient and clinician, and technology can introduce a new space between them. Digital health alters communication, boundaries, and privacy/confidentiality, placing that essential relationship at risk. Digital tools introduce barriers, distractions, and distances that prevent clinicians from being physically present with patients. Virtual health initiatives may further amplify existing health disparities experienced by those living, for example, in communities with limited internet connectivity or digital access., Yet at the same time, they have also afforded opportunities to improve the connection between patient and clinician, overcoming barriers and eliminating distances for those in rural and remote areas, where access to care was previously limited or, in urban areas, where travel to medical appointments was challenging. While continuing to keep compassionate care at the forefront, we need to weigh the consequences of our actions from multiple perspectives and ensure that digital compassion, the relationship between emergent technology and compassionate care, permeates all programs, services, and platforms, as we make our way forward through this storm.
Competence on the Horizon
As medical educators, we are going to need a new approach to address the gap that remains between where our digital competence rests now as a profession and where it needs to be for our learners and patients as we continue to move into an uncertain future. Paulo Freire, an educator of the 20th century, advocated that teachers and students together initiate and sustain a process of dialog on issues that are real in the lives of both, and I would add that patients must be a part of that same dialog. He spoke to the transforming role of human reflection and action, of social reform and advocacy. That call has not changed. So how are we going to shape the future of health-care delivery postpandemic? How are we going to navigate this transition to the “next normal?” There is no question in my mind that we need digital health-care clinicians who can deliver person-centered care using the most appropriate digital tools and technologies available to them, inclusive of understanding the security and privacy of digital information. Digital technologies will need to be seamlessly integrated into the full clinical experience, in a way that is professional and respectful, including before, during, and after the clinical encounter. This will likely be a steep learning curve for most of us, as we work to close the gap in a socially accountable way.
We have been thrust into this digital landscape due to the pandemic, in one crashing wave, rather than being able to dip our toes gently into the waters to acclimatize gradually. We may find ourselves now either trying to keep our heads above water, still trying to stay afloat and wait out the storm, or treading water in circles, not really knowing what to do next. We know that virtual health delivery is going to change postpandemic. We will need to transition from the “virtual models adopted in response to COVID-19 to those that will be relied on as permanent features of the health delivery system.” While we have been predominantly fixated on survival, a good interim strategy, I would challenge that we now need to shift our focus to the critical assessment of how we thrive, rather than merely survive, by looking at digital health through the lens of both digital compassion and digital competence. Why? Because “despite the growing enthusiasm and use of virtual care, there has been limited discussion of its quality and the principles that should inform its development and assimilation.” And, while there has been focus on how to integrate learners into the virtual health encounter and on how to assess existing competencies, we know too little about the actual clinical competencies needed to deliver effective virtual health care.,
When I was asked to create digital literacy objectives for my clinical specialty of developmental pediatrics, I naively proposed this simple, one-line approach: Identify and integrate appropriate virtual health opportunities into the provision of person and family centered care. While this may have been a great place to start, this objective was anything but directive. Thankfully, best practices in learner competence continue to emerge, which will help guide the process, and I would be remiss not to help chart a way forward. Having reflected and grown since my aforementioned approach, and drawing from the work we have explored together, I suggest the following guiding principles for digital health when creating entrustable professional activities, key tasks clinicians are trusted to do every day:
Ensure the importance of trust, transparency, human centeredness, and compassion in the development and delivery of digital health technologiesBe mindful of security, confidentiality, accuracy, and clarity in digital information that is created and usedEstablish and maintain appropriate competence in selecting and operating technologies for clinical use or, more simply put, select the right technology for the right time,Maintain a professional online presence by behaving professionally and respectfully with all media, alwaysModel positive and effective digital behaviors to othersMaintain an emphasis on equity, diversity, inclusivity, and access when implementing digital health servicesEnsure the implementation of digital health technologies aligns with a health-promoting learning environment.
These seven points of practical focus should be able to steer educators in the right direction. Yet, this is no small task we are being asked to accomplish in continuing to shift the health-care culture into uncharted waters. As a result, it cannot be a task that falls solely on the shoulders of medical educators. It calls for organization-level barriers to be removed and replaced with digital compassion standards, the standard of care for the experiences provided in digital environments. We have an incredible opportunity to support these approaches through education, training, and coaching, affording a more balanced approach to health-care delivery, while ensuring an equal seat at the table for all. If we are going to get to our destination of providing compassionate care in the digital age, I don't think we have any other choice but to learn how to navigate these waters that are churning thanks to digital health, learner competence, and a pandemic. It was the storm I had been waiting for to hoist the anchors that stagnated our progress forward and I am grateful we have adopted new strategies and adapted our practices. Let us not lose sight in doing so, however, of the opportunities that remain, and holdfast to the wave of momentum we have been riding, for we have not yet arrived at our final destination.
I would wish to thank Drs. Kevin Eva, David Wiljer, and Victor Do for having read and commented on a draft version of this manuscript.
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