An exploration of the value of continued education in the healthcare profession.
Commentary by Dawn Morton-Rias, Ed.D, PA-C
Life long learning and continued education are essential element of practice and service for those of us who work in an area that impacts the public’s health and well-being.
It is for this reason that continuing medical education (CME) is required as part of the recertification process for healthcare providers including certified PAs, for example, must earn 100 CME hours every two years, which may be obtained through a wide variety of sources. Lifelong learning contributes to the fund of knowledge that is required to earn an advanced degree but most importantly, lifelong learning is a mindset that commits the learner to strategies that add new and emerging information, knowledge and technologies to the provider’s “toolbox.” It goes beyond lecture-style instruction to include conferences, seminars and skills workshops, online study, shadowing and mentoring, and active learning projects that encourage self-assessment and/or performance improvement.
Lifelong learning is so important that it is one of the tenets of the health professions, including my own. In the medical field, therapeutics and diagnostics change rapidly. The article “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Medical Education” states “it is estimated that the doubling time of medical knowledge in 1950 was 50 years; in 1980, 7 years; and in 2010, 3.5 years. In 2020 it is projected to be 0.2 years — just 73 days.” 1
Even for those working in non-patient care roles, technology, regulations and best practices in business and leadership change rapidly as well and require continual review and retooling.
Lifelong learning must be more than just a box to check off for certification or a promotion. Lifelong learning provides value. It should include reflection and strategies to renew and actively replenish our usable fund of knowledge.
- Make us better providers because continued learning expands knowledge, capabilities and commitment
- Benefit us professionally by exposing us to new concepts and research-driven strategies, which can be reassuring to patients, and
- Improve the quality of our professional and personal lives by expanding our professional network and resources.
Learning as a Lifestyle
I realized early in my career that lifelong learning is a lifestyle. I always had journals on my dining room table and at my bedside. Now I have apps that I access while waiting in airports. We can learn anywhere. It is an important discipline, regardless of your practice setting or specialty because it provides a fresh perspective and allows us to keep abreast of technological change, leading research and innovation.
Embracing lifelong learning also means that you are receptive to learning strategies throughout your career. It means that you recognize that you must use knowledge to maintain it. It requires that your ego is in check and you acknowledge that you must continue to learn. After all, you can be in a library full of books, but if you don’t open any, your world will not expand.
A library can be a metaphor for any learning. It can include shadowing and mentoring as we learn from others during those experiences. Networking can often lead to learning also. I have accessed opportunities to learn by accepting invitations to serve on task forces and work groups. These networking opportunities usually require prep work I need to complete so that I can contribute in a meaningful way.
In addition, I learn from what others share at these events. Often, these groups lead to other invitations. I recently received an email from a surgeon I worked with on a committee seven years ago asking me to participate in another opportunity. Invitations like this one are an example where being at one table gets you invited to another table. Each one is a learning experience.
Knowing What We Don’t Know
I have had this discussion with PA students and with PAs who have practiced medicine for years: We don’t know what we don’t know. We have to be receptive to feedback, whether it’s testing or a 360-degree evaluation. There is always ongoing work to be done.
I am an advocate of seizing every opportunity you can, no matter how small. Keeping up to date ensures you can provide optimal care — whether it is on a personal, educating-a-family-member level or on a professional level — allowing you to ask the right questions and understand the patient in the broadest context.
The expectation for providers has always been high, and it is even higher today. Patients have questions that go beyond their medical care, and you may have to understand the industry, how we are paid and how reimbursement works. As Certified PAs continue to take advantage of the flexibility to change specialties and clinical settings, the need for continued learning will only increase.
Becoming Critical Learners
At the same time, we have to be critical consumers of learning materials. Technology today allows publication and access to new information so quickly, yet not every article is research-based. It is incumbent on us to learn how to interpret medical literature and understand the controls and sample size as we assess whether the information is credible. We must be discerning in what we access and how we analyze and incorporate what we learn. Today, all PA programs teach students how to critically interpret medical studies. All of us must keep a healthy skepticism and curiosity for learning throughout our careers.
Despite the importance of learning, many struggle to attain work/life balance when faced with the time pressures of society, a complex health care industry and the daily rigors of family life. Each of us who has balanced our family and career responsibilities can relate to the pressures. It doesn’t mean ongoing efforts to learn aren’t possible or shouldn’t be pursued. Streamline your journal reading through a service that consolidates relevant research. Read well-respected medical and consumer publications that reflect the state of the art in medicine and healthcare, as well as publications that your patients and constituents are reading. Listen to podcasts and CME programs in the car, at the gym, waiting to pick up children or while traveling. Attend on-demand webinars when possible. Set aside time early in the morning or late in the evening.
When socializing with professional colleagues and peers, integrate discussion of interesting findings or recent studies into the conversation. I like to ask colleagues what they are reading or if they have read anything interesting lately. If none of these options fit your learning style and preference, find something that fits more comfortably. Commit to some routine learning that expands your professional knowledge.
Benefiting our Profession and Ourselves
Lifelong learning is good for our profession, patients and society. There is also evidence-based research that supports the health benefits of lifelong learning as a way to exercise neuroplasticity. Retaining mental acuity is, of course, fundamental for any healthcare professional. However, it is also essential to our personal quality of life. Adopting lifelong learning as a lifestyle choice — not just a means to keeping our jobs — can provide benefits well beyond our caregiving and professional commitments. It requires some effort, but it is certainly well worth the time.
About the Author: Dawn Morton-Rias, Ed.D., PA-C, is the president and CEO of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). For more information on the NCCPA, visit www.nccpa.net
- Densen, Peter, MD, Challenges and Opportunities Facing Medical Education, Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association, 2011; 122: 48–58, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3116346/