Evolving Education Strategies in Specialty Societies

By Philip A. Dombrowski, MBA, FACEhp, Joseph S. Green, PhD, and Marcia J. Jackson, PhD 

The adage “birds of a feather flock together” holds true for specialty societies and contributes to the unique position that these societies play in meeting their members’ learning needs. Specialty societies differ in size and membership but share some common features. Specialty societies are member organizations, which are typically guided by time-limited governing boards, committees, task forces and work groups, with their operational plans implemented by the society staff members. Features shared by all specialty societies are the desire to provide relevant education to members, to identify members’ learning needs, and to respond by developing and delivering education activities designed to meet these needs and close learning gaps. It is imperative that these activities are consonant with an overarching strategic plan so as to avoid the whiplash of changing leadership and to remain relevant and responsive to the changing research, clinical practice, political, economic and education environment. Current environmental shifts impacting specialty society education include the transformation of continuing medical education underway at the Accreditation Council of Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) and the shift toward an interlinked, competency-based medical education curriculum. This is the first of a two-part series describing an approach for a specialty society to develop and maintain a relevant education strategy. This article describes current environmental shifts and posits nine goals to serve as the foundation for a society’s education strategic plan. The second article in the series describes specific steps to implement each goal.

Current Environmental Shifts

The ACCME transformational activities are described in a highlights report (http://www.accme.org/sites/default/files/ACCME_2017_Highlights_Report.pdf) and include a more flexible yet expanded menu of criteria for Accreditation with Commendation, expanded opportunities for physicians to participate in education that counts for multiple requirements, the alignment of ACCME/American Medical Association requirements, increased recognition for interprofessional continuing education (IPCE), and growing engagement with international CME leaders and institutions. These changes afford opportunities for a specialty society to select the specific criteria that reflect their association and result in Accreditation with Commendation, expand interprofessional education and further its own international education program. These shifts should be reflected in the society’s evolving education strategy.

Today’s landscape for specialty society education is evolving toward the development of competency-based curricula. The impetus for this approach to education originated at the graduate medical education level but has logically been migrating upward toward the next level of the education continuum: continuing medical education. There are several advantages that accrue to a society that determines the essential knowledge, skills and attitudes required for its members to provide competent care:

  • Essential competencies serve as the standard against which individual and overall member learning needs should be assessed. Learning needs reflect gaps in knowledge or skills when compared to these standards.
  • Gaps in member competencies inform priorities for learning activities and content development for practicing physicians.
  • Competencies provide a method to interlink curriculum across the medical education continuum. For example, the American College of Cardiology (ACC) defined the competencies for resident training programs and for the general cardiologist, which may be found at the following website: https://www.acc.org/education-and-meetings/products-and-resources/competencies.
  • Competencies, when measured with related self-assessment tools, identify areas where an individual member should seek supplemental learning activities, thereby creating the customized, individual education that a specialty society is seeking with its education strategy. Once identified, these learning gaps can direct an individual toward appropriate education activities to support cost- and time-efficient learning.
  • Last, and most importantly, a competent healthcare workforce will deliver the best patient care and support societies in meeting this critical underlying goal.

Specialty society education today is continuing the transition from “continuing medical education (CME)” toward “continuing professional development (CPD).” CME, for many years, has been characterized by lecture-dominated formats that are episodic and non-reinforcing; little evidence of impact on clinical practice or patient outcomes; minimal collaboration between learners and the CME providers; a lack of timely response to clinician learning needs; an emphasis on obtaining credit; and a focus on course production by an enrollment economy. In contrast, CPD is characterized by increased emphasis on learning; data-based, backward planning; blending of quality management and CME; a collaborative learning system; and a focus on improving and measuring patient outcomes.1 This shift also needs to be reflected in the evolving development of an education strategic plan specific for a given specialty society.

Creation of an Education Strategic Plan

The development of an education strategic plan should be consonant with the overall vision and mission for the specialty society and the education program within it. Such a plan can rest on nine separate goals, each achieved by a defined set of implementation tasks carried out at various points over a multi-year period. To keep pace with ever-shifting environmental changes, this effort might best be the responsibility of a transitory ad hoc group reporting to and supported by appropriate society governing oversight and staff leadership.

Goal to Accomplish

The following goals, if accomplished, would support the attainment of the education vision and mission undergirding the overarching education strategic plan. Some are short-range goals and achievable quickly or at least within a multi-year strategic plan. Other goals may require more time but suggest a pathway to be followed.

  1. Reconfirm or edit the education vision and mission, linked to the overall specialty society vision and mission, to guide strategic planning and implementation.
  2. Create and establish a purposeful “backward” education program planning process that links society learning activities to gaps in clinical care and quality of care outcomes.
  3. Identify comprehensive learning needs for all physicians, other health professionals and patients, with respect to required knowledge, skills and attitudes essential to close the clinical gaps and achieve quality of care outcomes in the specialty area.
  4. Create content based on the identified competencies and learning gaps of all treating physicians, health professionals, referring physicians and patients in the specialty area.
  5. Meet the individual and group learning needs of all health professionals providing care to patients worldwide and to referring physicians and patients in the specialty area through an education program aligned with the society’s education vision, if such a span is incorporated in the society’s vision and mission.
  6. Disseminate knowledge using innovative formats (including live and web- and technology based learning) and methods consistent with the learning needs of the specified target audience(s) and education activity objectives.
  7. Evaluate education activities with respect to higher level outcomes including learning, professional competence, performance and/or patient care outcomes.
  8. Ensure that members and staff have the leadership, learning skills and organizational knowledge to successfully implement the strategic plan and succeed in the educational roles they are asked to play within the organization.
  9. Establish an appropriate organizational infrastructure that supports the successful implementation of the education strategic plan.

The second article in this two-part series will describe specific action steps to implement each of these nine goals and assert the importance of establishing priorities when developing an education strategy.



References and Further Reading

  1. Auseon AJ, O’Gara PT, Green JS, Jackson, MJ, et.al. The essential role of educator development: 10 years of the ACC emerging faculty program. J Amer Coll Card: 2016; 67:18.
  2. Green, JS and Leist, JC. Strategic leadership of continuing medical education,” in New Primer of Continuing Medical Education, Alliance for Continuing Medical Education, 2003.
  3. Research and Development Resource Base, University of Toronto, https://www.tandfonlline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0142159X.2018.1483578.
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