In the past, the medical profession was aware of groundbreaking technologies and applications well in advance of patients. Their first experience with EKG’s and genetic testing was mediated by their doctor from the beginning. Today however, patients can get their hands on mountains of genetic data through the mail at the price of a fancy meal. As these tools are made ever cheaper and more sophisticated, as inexpensive and inobtrusive devices are networked with smartphones and mobile health apps, and as patients increasingly adopt these tools in an effort to define themselves as empowered members of the doctor-patient relationship, the traditional medical world will be trying to catch-up. Today’s doctors will have to learn how to adopt these advances into their practice on their own, and it’s hard to think of a better time to start than now. The challenge of a patient armed with a dossier of Google searches pales in comparison to an empowered patient who has the motivation and time to enlist several features of 21st century medicine: direct-to-consumer genomics, mobile health apps, personalized medicine, social media tools, personalized health records, and more.
While the current medical education curriculum still labors under an educationally conservative structure, medical students might paradoxically see great opportunity. Today’s medical students are largely digital natives who, importantly, have not been shaped by what has been described as a bygone era of medicine. They are uniquely suited to learning about these breakthroughs, experimenting with the devices and tools, and innovating their application. In the teaching hospital, the medical student can familiarize his or her superiors with the tools while gaining insight into effective uses. Thereafter, medical graduates so informed would be highly sought after to shape the clinical and commercial future of these initiatives. There is a wealth of opportunities for the student who buys a BodyMedia armband and talks about it with clinical faculty while on the wards, or, by comparing their experiences interviewing patients in the clinic with the dialog at PatientsLikeMe.com, becomes proficient at distinguishing what patients want to know from what is helpful to know. Precisely because medical schools struggle to incorporate this material into a curriculum means that students who take the initiative to become proficient in 21st century medicine stand to be particularly valuable to many stakeholders in the healthcare field.