Not surprisingly, learning resources that are accessible, clinical, and familiar to us provide a good return of information and skills for the resources invested.

We CME professionals focus on the learning needs of others. It often seems like a them-vs.-us activity. We plan and “they” participate; and we see to the teaching while “they” see to the learning. Yet the reality is that we and our clients are similar in ways that make learning the most interesting of human activities.

We all learn so we can address needs we face; we all learn through participation in instructional activities; and we all learn in the face of other demands on us and our time. This means two things: First, we are all adult learners, and second, we CME professionals can appreciate how “they” learn by considering how it is that we learn.

Three-Step Problem-Solving

Let's consider what happens when you need to learn something — for instance, how to document the ways in which physicians change due to participation in CME activities. Pretend this is a problem because of your upcoming Accreditation Council for CME accreditation, and that you need information on physician change to submit a complete self-study.

How do you approach this problem? If you're like the rest of us, you look in journals you receive (e.g., Medical Meetings, the Alliance for CME's Almanac), you talk with colleagues, and you look for sessions at the Alliance annual meeting addressing this topic. If the sessions look useful (more about this shortly), you attend. You also discuss your concerns with others at the meeting.

Why do you do these things? First, they're things you've done to solve problems in the past — which is to say they are familiar to you. Second, doing these things makes use of accessible resources. The resources are easy to find (the journals are in your office, for example), and you can generally locate the information you need quickly and understand it. You can also see how it applies to your problem; and if you can't, you'll ask the colleagues you talk to regularly to help with the interpretation or application.

Forget Theory — Make It Useful

Let's say I'm one of those colleagues. You call me and ask what I can suggest about pre- and post-instruction measurement. You're not as interested in the theory since all you want to know is what to do. What you want is something clinical rather than theoretical — this is what I referred to earlier when I was talking about “useful” as an attribute of learning resources. People are generally more concerned with how than why.

Not surprisingly, learning resources that are accessible, clinical, and familiar to us provide a good return of information and skills for the resources invested. Since we've already noted that CME professionals and physicians are alike in being adult learners, it's not surprising that accessibility, clinical applicability, familiarity, and return on investment are attributes of sources doctors use.

Ensuring Physicians' ROI

What are the messages here for CME providers? Doctors attend CME activities because they've been of value in the past (e.g., they provide solutions to problems, they carry the credit doctors need to maintain privileges, they offer opportunities to talk with colleagues). We need to make sure the sessions are accessible, clinically oriented, familiar, and offer a good return on investment.

This raises an important question: How can doctors be familiar with CME learning formats (like online instruction) if they don't already know how to use them? In other words, if doctors use the approaches to learning they've used in the past, what happens when a new approach appears? This is, in fact, the problem faced by CME providers who make use of the Internet. I will address the issue of online education in the June column.

Henry B. Slotnick, PhD, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, conducts research on how physicians learn. He has been recognized by the Alliance for CME with several awards for his contributions to CME. Send your questions or ideas to