Medical education as a science: the quality of evidence for computer-assisted instruction

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2003 Mar;188(3):849-53. doi: 10.1067/mob.2003.168.


Objective: A marked increase in the number of computer programs for computer-assisted instruction in the medical sciences has occurred over the past 10 years. The quality of both the programs and the literature that describe these programs has varied considerably. The purposes of this study were to evaluate the published literature that described computer-assisted instruction in medical education and to assess the quality of evidence for its implementation, with particular emphasis on obstetrics and gynecology.

Study design: Reports published between 1988 and 2000 on computer-assisted instruction in medical education were identified through a search of MEDLINE and Educational Resource Identification Center and a review of the bibliographies of the articles that were identified. Studies were selected if they included a description of computer-assisted instruction in medical education, regardless of the type of computer program. Data were extracted with a content analysis of 210 reports. The reports were categorized according to study design (comparative, prospective, descriptive, review, or editorial), type of computer-assisted instruction, medical specialty, and measures of effectiveness.

Results: Computer-assisted instruction programs included online technologies, CD-ROMs, video laser disks, multimedia work stations, virtual reality, and simulation testing. Studies were identified in all medical specialties, with a preponderance in internal medicine, general surgery, radiology, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, and pathology. Ninety-six percent of the articles described a favorable impact of computer-assisted instruction in medical education, regardless of the quality of the evidence. Of the 210 reports that were identified, 60% were noncomparative, descriptive reports of new techniques in computer-assisted instruction, and 15% and 14% were reviews and editorials, respectively, of existing technology. Eleven percent of studies were comparative and included some form of assessment of the effectiveness of the computer program. These assessments included pre- and posttesting and questionnaires to score program quality, perceptions of the medical students and/or residents regarding the program, and impact on learning. In one half of these comparative studies, computer-assisted instruction was compared with traditional modes of teaching, such as text and lectures. Six studies compared performance before and after the computer-assisted instruction. Improvements were shown in 5 of the studies. In the remainder of the studies, computer-assisted instruction appeared to result in similar test performance. Despite study design or outcome, most articles described enthusiastic endorsement of the programs by the participants, including medical students, residents, and practicing physicians. Only 1 study included cost analysis. Thirteen of the articles were in obstetrics and gynecology.

Conclusion: Computer-assisted instruction has assumed to have an increasing role in medical education. In spite of enthusiastic endorsement and continued improvements in software, few studies of good design clearly demonstrate improvement in medical education over traditional modalities. There are no comparative studies in obstetrics and gynecology that demonstrate a clear-cut advantage. Future studies of computer-assisted instruction that include comparisons and cost assessments to gauge their effectiveness over traditional methods may better define their precise role.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study

MeSH terms

  • Computer-Assisted Instruction / standards*
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Gynecology / education
  • Humans
  • Obstetrics / education
  • Retrospective Studies