How online education is changing for rheumatologists during the pandemic

Rheumatology stands to gain from the move towards online medical education hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly if rheumatologists get onboard, say international experts.

Rheumatologists can help enrich online education in these challenging times by contributing more to online activities such as peer review and social media, which are becoming major players during the pandemic, they write in their paper published in Clinical Rheumatology.

Also more involvement from skilled, ethical specialists aware of misinformation spread on social media may also go some way to address the shortcomings of online education.

Rheumatology education across the world has been disrupted by COVID-19, with face-to-face educational meetings and conferences cancelled, trainees redeployed and exams postponed, and this has sped up the inevitable switch to digital platforms and open-access publishing.

According to the article, digital format textbooks and frequently updated online educational hubs such as UpToDate and ClinicalKey – on which emerging COVID-19 items are freely available – serve as a foundation of online rheumatology education.

Indexed rheumatology journals also support online education by opening access to recommendations and other materials that are rapidly changing research and practice worldwide. While global rheumatology societies are changing the format and geographic reach of their online learning resources to meet the changing needs during the pandemic.

Social media platforms

Social media offers various channels to aid online education and dissemination of evidence on rapidly changing subjects, particularly on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, the authors said.

“Nowadays, #MedEd and #MedTwitter are widely recognised hashtags, and many scholars are embracing powerful microblogging platforms such as Twitter for sharing their comments and arranging online journal clubs,” they say.

“Twitter has emerged as a powerful influencer regarding dissemination of published articles. Twitter journal clubs are growing in popularity; the most well-known in the field of rheumatology are @RheumJC and @EULAR_JC.”

With most rheumatology conferences currently conducted virtually due to COVID-19, the authors expect Twitter to play a significant role in the discussions and dissemination of educational content of these conferences.

Around half of young rheumatologists, academics and basic scientists use various social media platforms for rheumatology clinical and research updates, according to a EULAR survey. Another survey among rheumatologists and allied specialists showed that around 50% of respondents want to follow their favourite rheumatology journals on Facebook and Twitter and preferred images and videos for learning.

“Establishing special interest groups on such online platforms can complement the education process that is interrupted due to the pandemic,” the authors suggested.

Online teaching limitations

But there are drawbacks to online rheumatology education. Conducting online classes is a skill that is honed over time, yet because the pandemic has accelerated the switch, experience in online teaching is limited. Gaining various clinical competencies may also be jeopardised in the current conditions.

“While online teaching lacks emotional connections between mentors and mentees, a switch to a more interactive format of education and regular contacts may partly solve the issue,” the authors said.

Online tools that can be employed by educators should include web-based modules, self-assessment tools, social media journal clubs, interactive learning videos, animations of immunological and pathological pathways and sites for drug targeting.

The article warned that disparities in rheumatology education that existed across the world before COVID-19 are likely to be widened as the virus erodes already weakened health infrastructure, impacting face-to-face education and the maintaining of clinical skills by practising.

Despite some technical limitations and accessibility, online rheumatology education has the potential to reach the furthest doctor or healthcare provider in every corner of the world, the authors said.

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