How: A Better Way to Learn for Patients and Caregivers

At Salem Oaks, we believe that people learn better by doing than by being fed information.  

Think about it.  How many lectures from school do you remember?  I mean really remember. 

Now, can you think of an experience you had that taught you something important, that you still remember even though many years have passed? 

Experience Teaches

For me, I remember doing an exercise at a leadership development course in which I was the “team leader.”  We had a simple problem to solve – I think it was to move our entire team across an imaginary stream using two boards that didn’t reach.  More importantly, one of our team needed to visit the restroom and I excused him.  When he came back, I basically ignored the fact that he had no idea what we were trying to do.  I just told him to follow along.  And he was lost. 

I had failed as an inclusive leader. 

It showed up in the feedback I got, and even worse, on the videotape of the exercise.

No one could have taught me to always pay attention to my teammates’ needs by talking about it, drawing on a whiteboard, or even with really cool PowerPoint slides than that simple exercise.  I had to experience this shortcoming myself.

Salem Oaks Approach

Because of this experience and countless others, Salem Oaks has adopted an approach called Problem-Based Learning (PBL) to empower patients and caregivers to shape the future of medicine.  PBL involves challenging small groups of people to solve a relevant problem.  It is a hands-on approach that is led by the “students.”

Here is how it works.  During each session, the group is given a little bit of a case study – something to stimulate their thinking. 

They then discuss the situation as a group and try to solve the problem.  The key output is a list of things they know – I mean really know – and things they need to find out.   This list of things to find out becomes “homework”.  As a team, they assign responsibility for researching each of these questions offline.

When they return the following week, they need to teach each other what they learned.

Copyright (c) Salem Oaks 2018

During that session, another part of the case is introduced. And the cycle repeats. Analyzing the situation, identifying knowledge gaps, researching, and sharing. 

A Proven Method

PBL originated at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in the late 1960’s as a central feature of their new medical school.  At the time, the team working on the new curriculum felt that medical education had begun to become too specialized.  Physicians were treating symptoms and losing sight of the patient, and the medical curricula reinforced these trends.  PBL was embraced because it puts more value on application in practice than rote memorization of facts.  In the context of medical education, this means learning should focus on the patient and his/her complaint. [i]

This fits very well with our commitment to enabling true patient-engagement. 

PBL has grown and is used across many educational fields.

Salem Oaks uses PBL to build courses that help the patients, caregivers, and advocates gain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to partner effectively, and strongly, with researchers, healthcare professionals, and other players in the health ecosystem.  We work with our clients to identify specific areas of need and then construct custom Problem-Based Learning courses to meet those needs.

For example, we are working with the Friedreich’s Ataxia Research Alliance (FARA) to deliver a course to help their Ambassadors learn how to critically review and influence clinical trial protocols.  Using PBL, they will understand the foundations of bioethics, IRBs, protocol structure, and lessons learned during earlier clinical trials.  They will then apply what they have learned to the review of an actual protocol.  They will also learn how to research policies and regulations, how to present their findings to the team with evidence to back them up and to challenge each other intellectually. 

And that’s not all…

The cyclical nature of the PBL sessions mimics the life of drug discovery and development teams. 

The iterations provide opportunities to practice, practice, practice

Our objective is to give our “students” experiences that will prepare them to join these teams and make significant contributions.  PBL levels the playing field so that people from diverse backgrounds, education, and status can all share their ideas.  Thus, PBL integrates people skills with the subject matter – a much more effective way to learn.

Photo by Hans Peter Gaust

And it is fun!

People love to solve puzzles and other problems.  We use the inherent motivation of problem-solving to draw them into much deeper learning than we could offer otherwise; deep enough to be able to put their learning into action.

Does this sound like something your patient/caregiver community could use?  Maybe you should give us a call or send us an e-mail.


[i] de Graaf, E, Kolmos, A (editors), Management of Change: Implementation of Problem-Based Learning in Engineering  p.2 2007 Rotterdam

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Kevin Freiert

Kevin is the Principal of Salem Oaks Enterprises, LLC. Committed to working with patients, their advocates, biopharmaceutical companies, regulators and other stakeholders to develop educational tools that help patients bridge the gap between themselves and Biopharma R&D.

Works Cited

de Graaf, E, Kolmos, A (editors), Management of Change: Implementation of Problem-Based Learning in Engineering p.2 2007 Rotterdam

emilysquotes.com, Hans Peter Gaust

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