When Surgeons Learn from YouTube

By Bryan Vartabedian, MD

A study in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery this month reports that 64 percent of plastic surgeons describe having used online videos to learn new procedures.

What’s remarkable isn’t the 64 percent, but the fact that the study drew so much attention. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The Internet, after all, has long been seen as a sewer of misinformation. Just as the prevailing view has been that good medical information comes from textbooks.

A couple of thoughts:

Surgeons learn by watching. This isn’t breaking news. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that surgeons would learn on the most ubiquitous video platform in the world. A more interesting study would have been to examine how many surgeons learn by reading things printed on compressed pulp.

Good educational content is good no matter where it lives. Information is now shared in more dynamic, fluid spaces than printed text books. When we view educational content through a 20th century lens, learning from YouTube videos is seen as shocking. But when we assume a 21st century one, it seems like a natural progression.

The crowd is the editor. When every plastic surgeon in America references and refers to one amazing rhinoplasty video, it represents social peer review. Plastic surgeons, like patients, are smarter than you think when it comes to recognizing what’s worthy of their attention.

Nevertheless, the Internet is a tough platform. Sturgeon’s Law dictates that 90 percent of everything is bad information. But the problem is that we don’t know which 90 percent. We need the wisdom of the crowd coupled with practical sensibility. The challenge with open access educational content comes with how well we in the medical community can curate and promote good sources.

When mobile phones were new, we counted the numbers of doctors using them. We will have arrived when we stop publishing papers about how many doctors learn watching videos.

Bryan Vartabedian, MD, is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the school’s emerging programs in digital professionalism and literacy. On his blog, 33 charts, he writes about the intersection of medicine, social media, and technology. He is the author of The Public Physician: Practical Wisdom for Life in a Connected, Always-On World, and a frequent contributor to The Doctor Blog.

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