Virtually every medical student has days when they feel overwhelmed by the amount of content they have to learn. In fact, there’s so much to memorize that it’s almost impossible to get by without apps like Anki or image mnemonics from websites like Sketchy and Physeo. But the truth is that what you learn in med school represents only a tiny fraction of the world’s medical knowledge — and that fraction is getting smaller by the day.
Increases in medical knowledge, sometimes called the “knowledge explosion,” are occurring at an exponential rate. In 1950, it was estimated that the doubling time of medical knowledge was 50 years; now, it’s just 73 days. To put that in perspective, med students who graduated this year will have seen medical knowledge double four times since they started school. That’s sixteen times as many facts to add to your Anki reviews.
No matter how hard you study, the knowledge explosion is happening too quickly for any one person to stay caught up on everything. So what can you do to make sure you always have the latest information on the most important advances without getting overwhelmed?
- Sign up for email newsletters
- Take advantage of websites that do the work for you
- Subscribe to podcasts
- Subscribe to YouTube channels
- Use institutional resources
Sign up for email newsletters to get a broad overview
One of the easiest ways to stay in the loop is to subscribe to two or three email newsletters. You can look for newsletters in the specialties or focus areas that are most interesting to you, but it’s also a good idea to subscribe to at least one that will give you an overview of broader developments within healthcare.
If you’re looking for a good place to start, the medical reporting website STAT has a particularly wide selection to choose from. STAT’s Morning Rounds and Daily Recap newsletters (delivered every weekday morning and afternoon, respectively) will keep you updated on broad developments throughout the day, while other options (like PharmaLot, which focuses on the drug industry) are tailored to slightly more specific but still large-scale topics.
If you’re not sure you’ll have time for daily updates, you can also start with STAT’s Weekend Reads, delivered on Saturday mornings. Other once-a-week options include D.C. Diagnosis, which is billed as “an insider’s guide to the politics and policies of health care,” and HealthTech, which focuses on advancing technology in the life sciences. While some of STAT’s features require a paid subscription, many are available for free.
By this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be feeling overwhelmed by the vast amount of information about the coronavirus, not to mention how quickly treatment recommendations change as the medical community continues to learn more about its effects. Fortunately, there are several newsletters out there to help you stay on top of the most important updates.
One of my favorites is Expert Insights from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which is published three times a week. Each installment takes a closer look at the COVID-19 issues that have been dominating the news, such as the vaccine development and the pandemic’s influence on the presidential election. The CDC also has its own newsletter, although this one seems to be published much less frequently.
Take advantage of websites that do the work for you
If you’re looking for more specialty-specific options, you may want to follow updates from particular medical journals. Read by QxMD allows you to select from hundreds of journals and a wide variety of specialties to get personalized article recommendations in your feed. You can also add your own keywords and be notified when a new article related to those topics is published. If an article is behind a paywall, Read by QxMD can help you log in to your institution’s library website to get access or direct you to a free PDF if one is available.
JournalFeed is a great option if you don’t have time to read a full article every day. As the name suggests, this website promises to “spoon-feed” you the latest research, one day at a time. Each article, hand-picked from a wide range of topics, is condensed into a 60-second summary that’s delivered to your inbox every weekday. It may not sound like much, but as JournalFeed’s website points out, one minute a day will expose you to more than 250 articles over the course of a year. If you only want to see articles related to a certain specialty, you can indicate your preference when you sign up.
Subscribe to podcasts
Podcasts are a great hands-free option if you’re commuting to school or your clinical rotations. Not only will you catch up with the latest medical news, but stimulating your brain while driving home from a rotation late at night (or even early the next morning) will keep you alert behind the wheel – a win-win for any clinical student. Unlike newsletters published by reputable websites, almost anybody can start a podcast, so you’ll want to look carefully to make sure you’re getting accurate information from a reliable source. Fortunately, some of the biggest medical journals have their own podcasts, many of which are free of charge.
The NEJM’s Journal Watch is a great resource for finding summaries of the latest journal articles, but their podcast (called Clinical Conversations) takes a slightly different approach. Some episodes focus on the same topics as a typical journal article might, such as the installment on two new multiple sclerosis drugs. Others tackle the social, ethical, and structural aspects of the medical world, often in unexpected ways. For instance, an episode from 2015 is entitled: “Why Should Clinicians’ Complicity in CIA Torture Matter to You?”
If you’re looking for updates on a more specific area of focus, the internet radio program ReachMD has a wide variety of podcasts to choose from. In fact, you’ll have a hard time thinking of a topic they don’t cover. From specialty-specific podcasts on heart disease and diabetes to channels on Medicare and recent FDA drug approvals – and even a podcast styled as a medicine-themed book club – ReachMD has just about anything you’re looking for.
Subscribe to YouTube channels
As you’re probably well aware by now, a quick break to watch a YouTube video can turn into a virtual sinkhole that swallows up the rest of your afternoon. Still, if you’re an auditory and visual learner, there’s a way to keep those breaks productive. By subscribing to YouTube channels that focus on medical issues, you can take a few minutes away from reviewing lecture notes without losing your concentration completely.
The TEDMED channel is perfect for a study break that still feels productive. Most videos are about fifteen minutes long, and each one focuses on a completely different area of medicine. Since the talks are designed to appeal to an audience from a broad variety of backgrounds, they’re engagingly presented and use relatively simple language – a refreshing change of pace from the complex jargon in your lectures.
Exponential Medicine is another great channel to add to your bookmarks. As the name suggests, this series is devoted to “reshaping and reimagining the future of health and medicine.” The videos on this channel vary a fair bit in length, so whether you’re killing time between classes or taking a longer study break, you’ll be able to find one that meets your needs. The topics themselves are just as varied, ranging from big data in healthcare to racial disparities to cutting-edge imaging technology. If you’re interested in innovative healthcare (or if you just want to learn more), Exponential Medicine is a fantastic place to start.
Use institutional resources
If your school’s library has been closed due to the pandemic, you’ve likely lost access to many of the study spaces and other resources you used to take for granted. While that’s certainly frustrating, it’s easier than you might think to keep taking advantage of your institutional resources on a virtual basis. Many schools provide online access to textbooks, and several have increased the size of their online database in response to the lockdown. Depending on the type of institution you attend, you might also have free access to the online materials from libraries at other graduate or undergraduate branches.
Above all, your school’s librarians are an indispensable resource. They can point you to the specific materials you might be looking for, and they’ll be happy to let you know of any journal or newspaper subscriptions that your tuition gets you access to. Even if you were a regular user of your college’s online library database in undergrad, the librarians at your current institution can help you become an expert at navigating the idiosyncrasies of a new system.
Managing your medical school workload is no easy task, but with these tips in mind, you’ll be well equipped to stay up to date with major advances in the field. Above all, building good habits as a medical student will serve you well in residency and beyond.