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Anesthesia Online: Inventing a Virtual Medical Community

Dr. Ed Nemergut started OpenAnesthesia with modest goals.

The UVA anesthesiologist figured he and a colleague could start a digital forum to help fellow anesthesiologists learn from each other.

The project was conceived as a virtual textbook that could be edited by anyone, like a wiki. 

Says Nemergut: “The thought process was, what if we could build our own anesthesia textbook, and we had students, residents, people in practice and everyone kind of contributing what they knew about anesthesia: Wouldn’t it be great?”

open anesthesia logo

As the wiki evolved, Nemergut said he picked up and incorporated the various good ideas that came his way. Since that initial wiki launched in 2009, some of those ideas have included:

  • A “Question of the Day,” featuring a new review question everyday to help residents study for their board exams. (Sample question from Sept. 12: During a craniotomy, a patient develops intraoperative diabetes insipidus. What is the most likely cause of central diabetes insipidus and what is the treatment?)
  • An “Article of the Month” podcast featuring an interview and Q&A session with a well-know author in the field
  • An OpenAnesthesia app for iPad and iPhone that’s already been downloaded more than 6,600 times

The multimedia efforts have paid off, too. 

Nemergut said he thought it was a real accomplishment when the site hit 200,000 page views after a few months. The traffic grew steadily, and OpenAnesthesia now attracts more than 2 million page views a month. 

“When we had 200,000 page views in a couple of months, I thought that was awesome,” says Nemergut. “Now, I go all around the country and people say, ‘Oh yea, OpenAnesthesia. I use that.’”

If you’re an anesthesiologist, it seems, there’s a decent chance you’re making use of OpenAnesthesia.

Building an Online Community

Nemergut says one of the project’s greatest strengths is bringing people together in very specific disciplines who would not otherwise have the opportunity to learn from each other.

If you’re in a fellowship training program for obstetric anesthesia, for instance, there’s a chance you might be the only student in your program.

“One of the great things about being in medical school or in an academic environment is coming together and having a lecture and discussing and interacting,” says Nemergut. “So you can imagine going to a class where you’re the only person in a class. It’s tough.”

So, OpenAnesthesia offers what it calls International Virtual Grand Rounds in Obstetric Anesthesia, where every month obstetric anesthesia fellows come together to listen to a lecture and then virtually interact with each other and the lecturer.

Charting the Future of Online Exchange

Nemergut says he’s not sure to what degree tools like OpenAnesthesia are replacing traditional modes of education. At its simplest, it’s a way to supplement traditional learning methods.

“I’m not that old, but when I was in college and medical school, it was all textbooks and journals. And that has totally changed,” says Nemergut. “I think OpenAnesthesia is really the first crowd-sourced resource that has taken advantage of these new technologies.” 

Nemergut, who spends a significant amount of his time keeping the project going, says there’s no reason why a field like anesthesia has a lock on the concept of sharing expertise online. He’s recently spoken to parties in fields such as neurology and urology, for instance, curious about how OpenAnesthesia could serve as a model for their disciplines.

Says Nemergut, “It’s very gratifying to have developed something that people seem to find useful.”

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