Health Sciences Online: Building a Global Virtual Learning Centre

Erica Frank is taking health sciences education beyond the boundaries of books - photo by Martin Dee
Erica Frank is taking health sciences education beyond the boundaries of books – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 12 | Dec. 7, 2006

By Hilary Thomson

What would happen if health professionals and students around the globe had access to free, comprehensive learning resources — provided by some of the world’s most prestigious institutions — just by clicking a mouse?

Dr. Erica Frank has the answer. “It would fix the world.”

A UBC professor of Health Care and Epidemiology, Frank is heading a complex and ambitious international project – to create a global virtual health science learning centre where health professionals in training and practice can access high-quality, current courses, reference libraries and other learning resources to improve global health.

The only project of its kind in the world, Health Sciences Online (HSO) is scheduled to launch next summer and will include comprehensive resources in medicine, nursing and public health.

With a background in preventive medicine and a passion for disseminating health information, Frank says this project — budgeted at $2.5 million over three years — will democratize health science knowledge around the world. Her vision includes users ranging from a village healer in a developing country to a senior clinician in the U.S. or Canada.

“Our special interest is preventable chronic and infectious diseases like cardiovascular diseases, cancer and HIV, although prevention and treatment of all types will be covered,” says Frank, who is Canada Research Chair in Preventive Medicine and Population Health. “Our primary target audience is health professionals in developing countries, but we anticipate the resource will be widely used.”

Frank conceived the idea of HSO about six years ago and has since established a volunteer advisory committee that reads like a Who’s Who of distance and world health education. Her own volunteering work has given her a broad network of colleagues – committee members include representatives from the founding collaborators: the American College of Preventive Medicine; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the World Health Organization as well as from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University; Johns Hopkins; and the Association of American Medical Colleges. (UBC and the World Bank are also founding collaborators.)

A pilot, focused on HIV/AIDS education, is being launched in January 2007. There are 13 pilot locations and audiences include clinicians, medical residents, nursing students, public health workers, and faculty members at clinics, medical schools and universities in countries ranging from the U.S. to Sri Lanka, Armenia, Nigeria, China and Japan.

Participants will be able to search using any HIV/AIDS-related key word and HSO will produce a list of links to research articles, reports, clinical case studies and other learning materials.

In Canada, groups from UBC graduate students to the Cowichan Band are interested in participating in the pilot.

“We do have access to some continuing health education, but it’s never enough,” says Fairlie Mendoza, community health nurse at the Tsewulhtun Health Centre of the Cowichan Tribes, in Duncan on Vancouver Island. “Also, meeting travel expenses is a challenge — a virtual learning centre could supplement what we’re doing with no additional cost.”

A portal with browse and search functions, HSO will link to material that will usually be e-texts and stand-alone courses that can be used without additional instruction. Although the primary language is currently English, quality materials in other languages will also be linked and a translation function will allow access to all materials.

Prestigious institutions such as Harvard University, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Cornell University and Emory University have already committed courseware and references.

A needs assessment surveyed researchers, policy-makers, and health professionals in India, Africa, Europe and the Caribbean and found that reliable information and learning resources, such as textbooks, are often inaccessible, both in developing countries and in industrialized nations. By working with organizations such as the World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network, users will also gain the necessary hardware, connectivity and computer skills to participate in HSO.

Frank has a core team of only three other people, but a large cadre of volunteers. She is currently gathering additional volunteers and seeking funding. She has set out what she calls a “huge dragnet” to define, identify and obtain web content from reputable sources, such as universities, specialty societies and government organizations.

“The number of websites is big, but it is finite,” she says, explaining that the team will likely access tens of thousands of sources.

The content team is evaluating all resources against a content criteria checklist that looks at quality, depth, credibility, design and updating capacity. All content is donated, hosted and maintained by the content partners and is provided free and without passwords to whomever wants to learn.

“This project harnesses the power of the Internet to the best health education materials available. It’s a free, world-class education.”

For more information about Health Sciences Online, contact Frank at