Free Online Course Focuses on Healthcare in the Digital Age

A new free online course aims to help anyone interested in healthcare understand how social media and other digital technology are changing the field of medicine.

Medicine in the Digital Age is a massive open online course (MOOC) that will be offered on the edX platform by Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine starting May 5.

“Medicine is undergoing a transformation that is changing the ways that doctors and patients communicate, access information and solve problems,” said Kirsten Ostherr, a professor of English at Rice who specializes in health and medical visualizations and is co-teaching the new MOOC.

“Technology and the reality of a connected global community are conspiring to redefine both health and disease,” she said. “Patients are driving conversations about health care and are finding value in peer-to-peer, not just patient-to-doctor, problem-solving. This course offers participants an engaging, never-before-seen view of medicine and health care.”

The five-week course will explore the role of social media in health care communication, the uses of wearable technologies such as personal sensors and tracking devices that monitor activity and heart rate, the potential for “big data” to reshape health behaviors, the ethics of personalized medicine and the impact of these new developments on the doctor-patient relationship.

“The future of health care is connected, patient-centered, mobile and social,” said Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine who is co-teaching the course. He directs programs in digital literacy and advises leadership in the area of training and emerging technology at the college. His blog,, explores “the edges of medicine and technology” and is archived by the National Library of Medicine as part of a project to convey early 21st-century physician thinking.

“Self-tracking devices are empowering patients to take charge of their own health. Information and knowledge that was once controlled by physicians is accessible by patients,” he said. “Mobile platforms are beginning to allow secure, real-time communication between patients and providers. By the end of this course, participants will be fluent in the language of digital innovation.”

Ostherr, who has a master’s in public health, said she and Vartabedian expect the course to be of interest not just to medical students, residents and practicing physicians, but also to professionals in telecommunications, health insurance, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment manufacturing, policy and government and other related fields, as well as to family members taking care of a loved one who has a chronic health condition and people who are just interested in becoming better informed about health care options.

The course will consist of video lectures, discussion forums, live Twitter assignments, video interviews with experts, quizzes and short written assignments. Rather than a final exam, the course will conclude with a project involving critical analysis and reflection on what the shift from analogue to digital health means, on the risks and opportunities in this new era and on the ethical implications of digital health.

To register for Medicine in the Digital Age (hashtag #MedDig) or for more information, including a short video about the course, go to

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