A thesis from the UOC argues that online learning should be included in the training programmes of Spain's healthcare system (Photo: Chris Montgomery, Unsplash)
Teresa Bau and Sònia Armengou
A new UOC study shows that the education currently offered to healthcare professionals should be updated to match the technological reality of the 21st century
The research highlights the need to bring online communities into healthcare professionals' continuing education
Spain's national health system does not encourage this type of learning, which provides social and psychological benefits, as well as technical skills and knowledge
"The healthcare system has an urgent need to update its professionals' knowledge and skills. There is a generational gap in ICT skills across all groups of healthcare professionals," said Corpus Gómez, researcher at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya's (UOC) Faculty of Health Sciences, expert in healthcare and human resources management, and holder of a PhD from the UOC programme in Education and ICT (E-learning). Suggesting a possible solution, she said: "What are called 'online communities' – that is, groups of individuals who voluntarily come together over the internet to pursue a common goal – have been shown to solve problems more quickly and improve organizations' performance, thanks to the tacit knowledge that emerges from peer-to-peer interactions."
In her recently defended thesis – whose Spanish title translates to Online learning communities among healthcare professionals: opportunities for online continuing medical education and professional development – Gómez, who is also the human resources manager at Marina Salud in Denia, analysed the experiences and opinions of healthcare professionals in Spain's national health system, professionals in an online learning community linked to Colombia's University of Antioquia, and experts from the world of healthcare and education.
Her thesis followed a mixed methods approach, combining quantitative and qualitative data. It was co-supervised by Francesc Saigí, associate professor at the UOC's Faculty of Health Sciences, collaborator at the UOC's eHealth Center and director of the WHO collaborating centre in eHealth, and Sandra Sanz, member of the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences.
The communities analysed by Gómez include innovative e-learning projects such as AnestesiaR, a community for the continuing education of anaesthesiologists; the postgraduate seminar on Basic Biomedical Sciences at the University of Antioquia; and other professional groups such as those at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos in Madrid, the Denia Health Department, the OSI Tolosaldea (the Basque Health Service) and the e-health group Euskosanidad Digital, which shares knowledge on Twitter.
Age and gender, decisive factors
There are over one million healthcare professionals working in Spain's national health system. The largest age group among doctors is 55 to 64, a demographic cohort that is not so familiar with new technologies and the internet. The sector is also significantly female-dominated, with more than 77% of healthcare workers identifying as women. The research has found several factors that affect participation in online learning communities. First is age: younger professionals act as community leaders, while older professionals take on the role of 'lurkers' (non-participating members of a chat or community), which limits the transmission of knowledge on a large scale. Gender is also a key factor: the greater the gender inequality, the greater the efforts of female professionals to balance this inequality through e-learning. Gómez said that "the combination of education and internet use is fundamental for women's professional development".
Lack of incentive hinders learning
A troubling observation in Gómez's thesis is that even professionals who fully believe in the importance of ICTs and use them in their work do not take to the internet to learn or hone their professional skills. According to Gómez, "there is a lack of incentive for non-formal learning and a poor culture of collaborative online work and study, both at the individual and organizational level." Continuing medical education plans do not recognize these training approaches, nor are they part of career development systems. As Gómez has shown, training accreditation matters more to Spanish professionals than actual learning or skills development.
Hence, the researcher believes that "it's necessary to embrace these training approaches and formally recognize learning of this type." The challenge is to guide professionals in using the internet as a learning tool and to follow a new collaboration-based model, which means not using the internet merely as a platform to host the same old learning model, but instead leaning into new formats and content.
Social and psychological benefits of collaborative online learning
In her research, Gómez highlights that online learning communities provide social and psychological benefits, in addition to purely technical and academic ones. She said: "Learning and shared knowledge get a boost from this social aspect. These relationship-driven variables are the ones that lead to the most satisfaction among users." Therefore, beyond enhancing knowledge management, this model "will also improve other areas of work: social connections, teamwork, communication, organizational cohesion and the development of transferable professional skills."
In short, this UOC research shows that the continuing education provided to healthcare professionals today does not cover the real needs arising from the technological reality of the 21st century. Learning in online communities is a suitable alternative to traditional methods of continuing education for healthcare professionals and is key to professional development. The National Health System does not do enough to encourage the use of these tools as a formal approach to learning. Indeed, no recognition or accreditation is offered for it, it is nowhere to be found on organizations' continuing education plans and it is not accounted for in career development systems. Simply put, the continuing medical education available to professionals is in dire need of an update.
This UOC research supports Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 4, Quality Education; 3, Good Health and Well-being; and 5, Gender Equality.
Thesis by María Corpus Gómez Calderón, UOC, September 2021: Las Comunidades Virtuales de Aprendizaje en el ámbito de los profesionales sanitarios: oportunidades para la formación médica continuada en línea y el desarrollo profesional.
The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century, by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.
The United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and open knowledge serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu #UOC25years
PhD in e-elarning by the UOC and author of the study
Francesc Saigí Rubió
Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) collaborating centre for eHealth
Faculty of Health Science
Expert in: E-health; definition and assessment of new care provision models, especially comprehensive care models using ICT; educational innovation in health (e-learning); web 2.0 and clinical practice communities; application of virtual reality in health.
Knowledge area: E-health and telemedicine.