Friday, November 5, 2010

A Few Words About Education in Healthcare and Life

So I recently got a very nice email from a person at a healthcare informatics consulting company, asking me to participate in a webinar on healthcare informatics. Two pieces of the email that really made me smile :
"Your blog was sent to me by a colleague who found it extremely educational on the topic of medical informatics. I quickly agreed; you discuss what can be very complicated systems and the politics of implementing an EMR in terms a layperson such as myself can easily understand. It has become a great resource for our staff as we continue to learn and grow within the HIT community."
"We were very impressed by the information in your blogs along with your conversational style..."
So I'm thrilled that someone picked up on what I try to do - Educate in a painless, simple way that people actually enjoy. A great example of this style can be found in the NPR Radio Show This American Life, where every week Ira Glass and various other writers/readers tell stories that are actually very educational. On This American Life, they have recently tackled subjects as complicated as the economic meltdown, credit default swaps, and other hairy political, legal, and financial issues, all told through stories that people share about their lives.

A great example of painless education told through story is their show about the financial meltdown, called The Giant Pool of Money. This is a true educational masterpiece. Every sentence in the show show lures you in, grabs you, and explains world banking and finance in a way that is totally tangible and palpable by the masses. You leave the piece feeling full of amazement at what you just learned.

This is the style of education I try to emulate in healthcare informatics. There are a lot of discussions in healthcare that are full of drama and intrigue, worthy of a Shakespearean drama. I try to convey it that way. :) (Although admittedly, I don't have as much time, creativity, or talent to emulate the TAL writers.) :)

Anyway, this gets me to my subject of education in healthcare, and in life.

Education is not something that has to be painful. It just has to require work. The first step is approaching a subject with :

  1. An open mind
  2. Eagerness to learn
  3. The humility to admit you might not understand something
If you can achieve that, then you will be a great student and will learn a great deal, in school and in life. As social human beings, I think it's our nature to be BOTH a teacher and a student, as long as we live, and we have that responsibility to play both roles to keep our society intact.

I think part of the educational problem is that people don't appreciate how much work it takes to make education painless. Good teachers are worth their weight in gold and platinum. We also think of education as ending after high school, or after college. Yes, we pay attention to higher education too, but there are many, many ways we educate eachother, as humans :

  1. We go to grade school, high school, and college
  2. We talk to our friends and neighbors
  3. We watch eachother and watch our children play on a playground
  4. We tell stories at family reunions
  5. We ask questions (to learn and to teach!)
  6. We scribble ideas on cocktail napkins
  7. We create and watch movies and videos
  8. We write and read books and web pages
  9. We write and listen to songs.
  10. We write laws and policies.
Although the law, and most discussion centers around #1 as an educational medium, there are many other ways to achieve an educational goal.

One of my favorite stories I collected during medical school was when my parasitology professor, Dr. Calum Macpherson, told us about his time spent fighting parasitic diseases in Africa. In one story, he described a particular disease, echinococcus, which was causing disabling and life threatening liver and abdominal cysts in animals and people in a particular region.

The challenge to him and his team, he reported, was preventing the behavior where people would feed pieces of these large, salty, abdominal cysts from dead animals to the dogs in the neighborhood. (Gruesome, perhaps, but when you have dead animals, and hungry dogs, it only makes sense.) This behavior, unfortunately, perpetuates the life cycle for the parasite, and the disease continues to spread.

So how to prevent the behavior of feeding these cysts to neighborhood dogs? One way: To educate the village. So they developed a creative solution. Working with local people, they created a children's song that could be performed and sung at a playground, during playtime. They made the song catchy enough that kids liked to sing it.

Apparently, many years later he went back, and still found the kids on the playground singing the song they wrote about "not feeding cysts to dogs".

A creative approach, and effective. Perhaps the first example of a viral idea.

In conclusion : Don't let education intimidate you. It takes work, but it doesn't have to be painful. :)

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