Four ways physicians can foster lifelong learning

By George N. Saliba | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published March 2, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Online resources can facilitate physicians’ learning by providing up-to-date medical information and by allowing for collaboration.

  • Although many medical conferences have been canceled, postponed, or virtualized during the pandemic, they remain a physician-learning resource.

  • Professional networking through medical associations and at events may help facilitate lifelong learning. 

  • Techniques such as practicing retrieving information from memory and explaining newly learned information to others can aid lifelong learning.

Continuing medical education (CME) and maintenance of certification requirements ensure ongoing physician education, but doctors may wish to supplement their learning to keep up with rapidly evolving medical treatments and technologies. Using a lifelong learning framework can help.

Lifelong learning has been a mainstay of physician competence and professionalism, and there are many ways doctors can enhance their lifelong learning frameworks within an increasingly complex healthcare landscape.

Using online resources

If one component of lifelong medical learning is being able to continuously access up-to-date, evidence-based information, the internet can clearly help facilitate this goal.

A 2020 study published in Health Information and Libraries Journal highlighted several internet-based tools healthcare professionals can use to keep abreast of medical developments.

These online sources may include, but are not limited to:

  • Web alerts, medical newsletters, and listservs 

  • Contacting health librarians 

  • Electronic databases, podcasts, and mobile apps

  • Web conferences, social media, and online journal clubs 

  • Living systematic reviews

Also, social collaboration sites such as Figure1 allow physicians to learn by discussing clinical cases.

Related: The tweetorial: Medical education beyond the textbook

Leveraging medical conferences/webinars

Although the pandemic canceled, postponed, or virtualized many medical conferences, these events—either in person or online—can inform physicians of the latest clinical information and trends, while also potentially fulfilling CME requirements. So, too, can various online medical webinars.

And while there appears to be no scientific consensus on how to best learn from a medical conference or webinar, taking notes and limiting distractions are a few tried-and-true learning methods.  

Overall, should physicians move their lifelong learning entirely online? 

A 2021 survey study published in PLoS ONE examined physicians’ attitudes toward scientific and medical webinars that appeared online during the pandemic due to canceled in-person CME events. The authors found that while the majority of surveyed physicians reported initial satisfaction with webinars during the pandemic, they simultaneously felt overwhelmed by how many webinars there were, and how frequently they were offered. The study also suggested that webinars should complement, and not replace, in-person learning. 

Along these lines, BMJ’s February 2022 opinion piece by David Oliver, titled “Has covid killed the medical conference?,” described what Oliver feels is a loss in skills, confidence, and enrichment  associated with being unable to interact in person with peers and experts at medical conferences.

In any case, networking opportunities within online medical conferences are common, although arguably not equivalent to meeting others face-to-face. Fortunately, in-person medical conference opportunities do exist in 2022, such as those offered for primary care providers via the Medical Education Resources (MER) website

Related: 4 areas where doctors lack training—and what to do about it

Additional professional networking

Lifelong learning and peer-to-peer interaction can occur in other scenarios, too. For example, the American College of Physicians holds various chapter meetings throughout the United States, and the American Medical Association (AMA) has at least 12 interest-based sections where it says members can interact with like-minded peers and gain skills, regardless of their career stage or practice setting.

A lifelong learning framework

Education stemming from networking, medical conferences, or web resources may be used in conjunction with other lifelong learning techniques.

Using new discoveries in cognitive psychology to shed light on how humans learn, two psychology professors at Washington University in St. Louis—Mark A. McDaniel and Henry L. Roediger III—along with writer Peter C. Brown, co-authored the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

The authors showcase tips for lifelong learners including, but not limited to:

  • Repeatedly retrieving newly learned information from memory

  • Reflecting on what one has learned 

  • Elaborating on a topic by, for example, by explaining it to another person

On the point of elaboration, John Mandrola, MD, explained in an article in NEJM Knowledge+ that writing itself was an essential component of how he learns.

As with any learning endeavor, the authors of Make It Stick caution against falsely believing that you have learned something. To safeguard against this issue, they recommend using techniques such as testing, peer instruction, cues, and corrective feedback.

What this means for you

There is no universal, definitive lifelong learning strategy for physicians. However, continuing education courses, maintenance of certification requirements, online resources, medical conferences, professional networking, professional associations, and various learning techniques can each play a role in fostering ongoing physician competency. 


  1. Bougioukas KI, Bouras EC, Avgerinos KI, et al. How to keep up to date with medical information using web-based resources: a systematised review and narrative synthesis. Health Information and Libraries Journal. 2020;37(4):254-292.

  2. Brown PC, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press; 2014.

  3. Hughes JF. Pandemic forces CME, medical conferences to evolve. PhysicianSense. August 27, 2021.

  4. Ismail II, Abdelkarim A, Al-Hashel JY. Physicians’ attitude towards webinars and online education amid COVID-19 pandemic: When less is more. PLOS ONE. 2021;16(4):e0250241.

  5. Mandrola J. A mid-career perspective on lifelong learning in medicine. NEJM Knowledge+. March 12, 2015.

  6. Oliver D. Has covid killed the medical conference? BMJ. 2022;376:o412.

  7. Primary Care Conferences. Medical Education Resources. 2022.

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