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How accessible, public eLearning can change the conversation about eating disorders


Plugging an outdated slide presentation into a website is not an effective method of conveying information. Well-formed eLearning is different.

Eating disorders are, unfortunately, often misunderstood, even by medical practitioners. Too little emphasis is placed on learning how to spot the signs and treat the beginning stages of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.

In a nation-wide US study led by Penn State, a dismal 6% of medical school programs, across disciplines, offered scheduled, formal eating disorder rotations. Many physicians will never see a case during their study and residency. This training seems inadequate, given that in the United States alone, eating disorders claim a life every 52 minutes.

These illnesses are potentially life-threatening. People with eating disorders–particularly those that involve being underweight for the body’s needs or purging behaviors–can experience an array of physical problems, including osteoporosis, organ failure, and gastrointestinal problems, among others. They also deal with a range of emotional difficulties such as shame, guilt, distorted body image, anxiety, and compulsive behaviors.

Despite the severity of these symptoms, doctors, nurses, and others who work with vulnerable populations have little access to educational materials to help navigate the world of eating disorders. With modern eLearning technologies, it is possible to correct this oversight and give more professionals the tools they need to help people in a precarious situation.

Layers of complexity

Eating disorders are not a simple problem. In addition to the physical and psychiatric symptoms they experience, patients with an eating disorder may deal with a strong stigma, even within the medical community. There is a misguided belief that people choose to have eating disorders. There also tends to be implicit bias towards individuals who are overweight and have eating disorders. A single educational pamphlet or lecture can barely scratch the surface of all these issues for medical providers.

Though eating disorders are psychiatric problems, patients with these disorders are very likely to first present for care at a family practice, emergency room or general practitioner’s office. When they do, their symptoms aren’t always easily recognizable. One Australian study led by the University of Melbourne estimated that as many as 77% of people with an eating disorder never receive specialized treatment, instead being treated for weight loss.

It is vital that doctors are armed with the information they need to properly diagnose eating disorders in the first place. As with so many things in the medical field, knowledge can help save lives.

The education problem

It is one thing to identify an education gap among practitioners, and another to fill it. Traditional ways of communicating information to doctors and other medical professionals such as conferences, the lecture circuit, presentations to medical students, and written literature all have limitations.

Thousands of medical conferences are held each year. Eating disorder specialists cannot expect to attend each one of them, and even if they did, only a small portion of participants attends any given session. Lectures, typically for smaller local groups, also have a small impact. This isn’t because doctors are not dedicated to learning new information and providing the best possible treatments. Medical knowledge is constantly expanding, doubling every few days. It is difficult to keep up.

eLearning engagement

Online training seemingly offers a great solution, but some in our industry, no doubt having seen less-than-impressive examples of online learning, have been reluctant to adopt it. Plugging an outdated slide presentation into a website is not an effective method of conveying information. Well-formed eLearning is different.

At its most efficient, eLearning is taken in bite-sized modules called micro-learning. The shorter format forces instructors to take a good look at what information is most important and get to the key data as quickly as possible. Short videos and courses allow learners to choose which parts of the material to engage with depending on their current knowledge and skills. And users can always come back to it when a situation arises where they need the information.

It is true that live instructors can interact with the audience and respond to real time feedback in a way that eLearning cannot quite mimic. However, with open virtual courses, it is possible to reach an essentially unlimited audience faster, cheaper, and more effectively.

We won’t solve the eating disorder education problem overnight, but online learning has the capacity to reach a wide range of students and professionals ready to engage in a different, more informed style of diagnosis and treatment. eLearning courses that do not require a lengthy time commitment, provide sound information and are freely accessible to the public, such as this one, may be part of the solution.

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