More tips on self-directed learning from the FOAMverse

Not long ago, we discussed some tips, suggestions, and pitfalls for those seeking self-directed medical education in the modern age. There are more ways than ever to advance one’s understanding of medicine without going back to school or taking out loans; “out of the classroom” and often cost-free learning is everywhere these days, but a certain amount of skill is needed to navigate it effectively.

Of course, my opinion will only get you so far. So I asked a few friends to share their own perspective. These are talented, astute clinicians who practice excellent medicine — but more importantly, they all made smart, fruitful use of non-traditional methods like FOAM to get where they are today.

Need proof? How about this: in another era, I wouldn’t even know their names. I met them all through the web.

Without further ado, here are some tips from the FOAMverse.

Read broadly, review often

Christopher finds that tapping multiple sources and coming back to them over time offers the best results:

I’ve always found multiple sources to be the most helpful. Often times a different source will teach the same concept in a slightly different or perhaps novel way. Sometimes that small difference truly solidifies my understanding of the topic.

I also go back and review the fundamentals of a topic at reasonable intervals. Just the other day, Ken Grauer got me links to his videos for my students, and I watched a handful of them to determine their applicability. I ended up picking up something new involving counting tachycardic rates using the big box method (something I’ve done for almost 10 years now).

I find both of those to be invaluable for the self learner.

— Christopher Watford, BS, NRP

My Variables Only Have 6 Letters

The human side

James appreciates how the personalization of FOAM adds context and explanatory value to the raw data found in journals:

I suppose the thing that comes to mind is that FOAM helps you to understand the people behind the literature. There are many things that cannot be written in a medical journal. Science tries hard to eradicate bias and consequently, the highly regulated bland language of journals would have you believe the extirpation had been successful. But even the best academics are still human.

FOAM offers us a chance to get the inside story and to understand the personalities that contribute to the state of the art. From the outcomes of major studies to the policies of hugely influential institutions, for better or worse, I have always found everything falls into place when you understand a little about the people and the politics behind the publications.

This may seem an unusual thing to write about, and it is probably not the most important skill for the autodidact to master. But it is an often unrecognized and underappreciated way of contextualizing what we think the science can tell us.

— James Oswald, AP

Clinical Practice Development Officer, Ambulance Victoria

Have fun, make it social, and keep learning alive

Tyler describes how he stays aggressive with his learning by keeping it dynamic and making it a part of his everyday life:

I remember being fresh out of EMT school and going to a cookout with some new co-workers of the ambulance service I had started with. I remember one of the more senior medics looking at me and saying ‘now don’t talk about medicine crap man, just have a good time.’ That stood out to me as a new clinician, because I had a hard time figuring out why we couldn’t do both.

Don’t get me wrong; years later, I can look back and understand the message of what he was saying. Still, this painted a dichotomous contrast for me between work and fun.

Fast forward almost 10 years, and I see that line beginning to blur. The current era of education includes a non-intimidating atmosphere, self-driven excellence, and a gathering of so called ‘nerds’ that can’t get enough. The first time I ever saw this blending of academics and fun was after an invitation to join Dr. [James] DuCanto in his lab for an experiment on supraglottic airways. I remember walking up the steps at the hospital and being super nervous to meet Jim. As I walked into the room it was full of Star Wars toys, lightsabers with laryngoscopes glued to them, and a huge bucket of fake vomit in the middle. Everyone was laughing, joking, and paying no attention to whether you were a nurse, paramedic, or doctor. I spent hours in that lab learning, teaching, and laughing my ass off, and I realized this was more than just an experiment on supraglottic airways and vomit; this was a paradigm shift in the way we learn.

I strongly feel that in order for us to want to grow as clinicians, it has to be fun. Whether you are reading up on a syndrome exhibited by a patient you just flew, writing a lecture you’ll get to present to your friends, or preparing for an upcoming podcast, it needs to be enjoyable.

For most people, the problem is finding time. I go out of my way to make time for therapeutic studying. I wake up every morning around 0500, make a cup of coffee, sit in my chair, and read whatever book I’m currently working through (currently The ICU Book). This is the quietest my house will be in 24 hours and it allows me time to digest the information and think about it for the rest of the day.

I’ve also found great benefit in group text messages with some of my closest med-nerd friends. We exchange ideas, EKGs, concepts, and pretty much anything else we want to discuss. Some of the best learning I’ve absorbed came from the midst of a debate. Controversy drives me to research the hell out of a topic, so I challenge my co-workers and friends to prove their positions as often as possible. I thoroughly expect them to reciprocate!

I am extremely excited to see what the next ten years brings to the table. For clinicians as a whole, and especially for millennials, we are changing the shape of medical education for generations to come.

— Tyler Christifulli, CCP, FP-C, NRP


What are your own tricks and techniques for tapping into today’s geyser of free-flowing medical learning?