5 Ways Medical Educators Can Use AI and Other Technologies

A doctor in training using virtual reality.

Most people today have heard about ChatGPT, a form of generative artificial intelligence (AI) that uses a chatbot to “converse” with users by creating content that responds to their questions or prompts. For medical educators, this emerging technology can bring real value to their classrooms and clinical teaching activities—but only if they understand how best to embrace the potential while sidestepping the risks and challenges of generative AI.

“Teaching with technology is an important topic right now. With the growing popularity of social platforms, virtual reality, simulation, blockchain technology, and artificial intelligence (AI), many medical educators have pressing questions about what these advances might mean for their future and how to leverage them most effectively,” explains Jeremy Richards, MD, MA, FACP, ATSF, who serves as chair of the department of medical education for Mount Auburn Hospital. Richards is also the program director of Harvard Medical School’s Training to Teach in Medicine, a six-month certificate program that prepares clinical educators from around the world to instruct the next generation of medical professionals.

A Growing Role in Medical Education for Emerging Technologies

Richards points out that since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been growing acceptance of using technologies like Zoom and Teams to facilitate remote medical education through both live and pre-recorded sessions. But many clinician instructors are less familiar with other emerging technological tools and unaware of how to use them effectively in medical education.

That’s why as the technology options continue to grow, educators need to augment their own knowledge of the latest offerings so they can utilize them for the best results—from engaging learners in the course material in a more concrete way and offering hands-on training in a virtual setting, to navigating the potential challenges AI and other emerging technologies pose.

How Medical Educators Can Use AI and Other Technologies 

Richards shares five recommendations to help educators embrace and apply the latest technologies effectively.

  1. Leverage social media platforms to engage learners. Popular social media platforms provide a forum through which to share medical education, in part because the brief format of posts can encourage teachers to break down their content into bite-sized chunks, which can be easier for students to digest, Richard says. Social media platforms also make it easy for users to interact with the information and with peers, creating the opportunity for deeper dialogue. In addition, teachers can use social media channels to provide students with easy-to-access links to reading lists, studies, and other helpful resources.
    Another important way educators can use social media channels is to host virtual classrooms, real-time chats, and polls that engage participants and capture their views. Richard says that many of the popular social media platforms have a robust following from the medical community, likely due to the ease of use and the ability to interact with different forms of content and with colleagues and peers.
  2.  Utilize virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to offer training opportunities. Both VR and AR have become more mainstream in recent years. VR uses a special headset or glasses to produce a computer-generated environment that feels realistic to the viewer, while AR enhances a real-world setting by superimposing virtual elements experienced directly through a smartphone or other device. “Even though it can be challenging to get headsets and to build the software required to experience VR and AR, the benefits these technologies bring to medical students can be well worth the effort involved,” Richard says.
    For instance, you can use VR and AR to create a virtual operating room (OR) and allow students to practice “operating” using special tools that mimic the feel of conducting a live surgery. “Instead of practicing operating on a mannequin as we did in the past, the VR experience can transfer that exposure into something that looks and feels like a real person. This is a much more immersive experience and brings deeper value to the student,” Richard says. 
  3. Create simulations for experiential learning. In the simplest terms, simulation refers to using aids to create a set of artificial conditions that medical students can use to build and practice their clinical skills. For instance, the educator may create a simulated exam room and “patient” that enables students to engage in a host of scenarios and try different actions without fear of harming or upsetting a real patient. Simulated experiences are often videotaped so the educator can debrief with the students. Richards adds that simulation doesn’t replace real-life experiences but, rather, can be another resource to enhance them and increase the student’s competency in key skills. Furthermore, while simulation-based medical education is usually associated with high-tech mannequins and simulation centers, “low fidelity,” low-cost simulation scenarios can be leveraged to create effective and engaging experiences for medical learners. 
  4. Understand the value of blockchain technology. While most people associate blockchains with cryptocurrency technology such as Bitcoin (the blockchain is the element that permanently records cryptocurrency transactions), you may not know that it is also a component that can be used in medical education. A blockchain is a database that links pieces of information together in a unique way that can’t be modified. The information is stored in multiple locations, and all of the blockchains must match in order to be valid. This type of built-in security is important for things like formal medical exams since students are unable to alter the questions or modify exam content or answers, Richard notes.
  5. Use generative AI (such as ChatGPT) wisely. There have been growing concerns among medical educators about the risks of students using ChatGPT and other forms of AI to do their homework and to help them with exams. But rather than being afraid of this rapidly emerging technology, Richards stresses that educators should accept its presence and figure out how to use it in the most effective way. 

​​“In the 1990s, with the evolution of the internet, professors were terrified that students would use this new technology to find answers instead of going to the library to look up information in books. There are now similar concerns with generative AI,” he explains. The key is understanding what this technology can and cannot do and embracing its capabilities.

“This will allow us to help the students use AI in a way that will continue their learning process,” he says. For example, rather than trying to stop students from using AI to compile large amounts of information quickly, educators can create exams that build on the type of content that AI can provide by asking nuanced questions that require analysis and application of knowledge, rather than regurgitation of facts. This will require students to use critical thinking skills to apply the basic knowledge provided by AI in a more sophisticated context.

Preparing for the Future of AI

While it can be easy to be intimidated by the rapid pace of growth of AI and other emerging technologies, Richards says that it’s important for educators not to feel overwhelmed. “Take a step back and look at what these tools are and how they are currently being used.” Once you understand what the latest technologies bring to the table, you can determine how to embrace them in the coming years to enhance your teaching. This will ultimately bring exciting new capabilities to how we, as educators, teach the next generation of medical professionals. 

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