Typing on laptopDr Neil Bacon
Founder and CEO, Doctors.net.uk

Keeping abreast of medical literature, attending lectures, training and education courses all make heavy demands on all doctors. At the same time, public health alerts such as the threat of bioterrorism and avian flu require that tens of thousands of doctors across the country receive rapid specialist training.

The need for quality training, speed of delivery and lower costs are of course conflicting interests. However, a range of government, private and medical organisations have found a way to square this circle, and to train eight doctors for the cost of training one doctor using traditional face-to-face learning.

Online learning provides a fast, efficient and cost-effective way to deliver training to large numbers of professionals spread over vast geographic distances.

Educational material is hosted on a secure, independent website, allowing participants to log on and access the information, wherever they are. The content is fully peer-reviewed and quality assured, and doctors can be alerted to new and urgent information by electronic alert systems.

For example, following the events in London of July 7th, doctors across the country received an SMS alert, directing them to interactive training on their role in the event of further terrorist events on the UK mainland.

One of the benefits of these new ways of learning is that consistently good information can be provided simultaneously to doctors around the country, removing the logistical barrier of lecturers having to travel to educational events hundreds of miles apart.

Furthermore, online modules allow doctors to participate at a time and place that suits them, rather than having to commit to attending a pre-organised event in a distant location and at an inconvenient time.

Best practice can be shared and clinical standards improved, while reducing the time clinicians have to time away from their workplace or family. Online education also saves on the costs of attending meetings and hiring locums, meaning that more money can be spent on providing patient care.

The major advantage to individual practitioners is convenience, however even more impressive benefits are seen at a higher organisational level. This method of education allows delivery of up-to-date information to practitioners around the country without logistical delays. Supplemental information can be released as soon as it becomes available, and errors or omissions are easily corrected.

HPA and Doctors.net.uk

One recent online learning programme was run by Doctors.net.uk on behalf of the Health Protection Agency (HPA). It provided education about managing major incidents, for example a bioterrorist attack. The HPA set up the programme in response to a clearly expressed educational need from GPs, only 6% of whom felt able to deal with a major incident, despite being likely to be called upon to help in the aftermath of such events.

The HPA had previously had difficulties attracting GPs to organised educational events, due to the pressure of clinical commitments. This meant that only small numbers of doctors were being trained at an excessively high cost.

By using online, interactive education to deliver the training, the HPA reached over 10,000 GPs across England while spending only 12.5% of the equivalent cost to reach this number of doctors using more traditional methods. The content of the programme is continually adjusted to take account of feedback from the users, as well as incorporating updates and changes to the information. This is “living’ education which changes and adapts to both the needs of its students and its context.

The training programme has also created a database of doctors sorted according to demographics with a known state of preparedness – those to be called upon in the event of local public safety incidents.

In addition to preparing doctors to deal with disasters, another application of online learning is to assist with efforts to contain a public health crisis. For example in the event of an outbreak of avian flu, electronic information sharing and training could facilitate nationwide knowledge sharing as to which therapies are proving most effective, ensuring that patients receive appropriate emergency treatment based on real-time experience at the frontline of clinical practice.

The HPA case is a good example of the benefits of online education: it is delivered in a cost-effective way that best suits busy healthcare professionals. The medium is growing as doctors demand flexible, high-quality and timely training; Doctors.net.uk alone has delivered over 400,000 hours of accredited medical education.

Ironically, the demands of the health care professionals are music to the ears of those responsible for delivering and paying for national and local education programmes. Delivering training in this ways conveys massive cost savings.

Online learning is growing at such a rate that within three years you will not find a doctor who does not use online learning for some part of their professional development. This represents a massive opportunity for all those responsible for educating or engaging doctors. And if you meet anyone who doubts the inevitability of this change, simply point out to them that ten years ago not a single doctor used email.

Dr Neil Bacon
Founder and CEO, Doctors.net.uk


Dr Bacon is the founder of Doctors.net.uk. The HPA fund the training described in this article, ensuring that it is free for all UK doctors.