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Getting a Medical Education from Your Headphones

Stacks of textbooks and medical journals may soon go the way of the Dodo for many physicians looking to stay updated on latest medical research and breakthroughs. Digital learning tools, such as podcasts, are the way of the future, at least according to James Siegler, MD, a resident physician in Neurology at Penn. Siegler hosts a weekly podcast called BrainWaves, which aims to deliver updates on the latest neurology research, trends, and patient cases to listeners. 

“Students, residents, and fellows are overwhelmed by the amount of information they need to filter through and distil,” Siegler said. “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to learn as much as we want to learn as quickly as we want to.”

But through audio files and podcasts, there is an opportunity to gain new knowledge while doing every day activities like riding the train or going to the gym. In fact, according to recent research, medical trainees now spend as much time listening to medical podcasts as they do reading textbooks and that number is only likely to increase.

“I drive to work, so I use that time in the car every day to listen to podcasts,” said Stephen Aradi, MD, a resident in Neurology at Penn. “Getting to hear about a new topic or breakthrough that I might not otherwise learn about, all while doing other day-to-day activities is a huge plus for me.”

The number of podcasts and other forms of digital education in the medical field has exploded in recent years, with many medical podcasts boasting more than 100,000 downloads. Podcasts can come in many formats, from prestigious medical journals such as the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine offering summaries of recently published research to more narrative, storytelling podcasts. Siegler’s own podcast uses a variety of methods, from expert interviews to case studies telling unique patient and clinical narratives. The most important thing, he says, is that the episodes are concise, easily understood, and engaging. 

“I use popular podcasts such as RadioLab and This American Life as my inspiration. I always feel like I’ve learned something new while also being entertained when I listen to these programs and I wanted BrainWaves to have a similar feel,” Siegler said.

Often, podcasts are a way for listeners to access a much larger and more varied breadth of information and offer new ways of thinking about a case or a diagnosis. 

“Just a few weeks ago, I was preparing an episode on vision loss and the very next day in clinic I was able to make a diagnosis of a posterior ischemic neuropathy — a rare condition I might never have considered if had not just produced that segment,” Siegler said.

Podcasts also offer flexibility and can accommodate different learning styles: they can be listened to more than once and often have video and imagery to complement the audio.

“I love the ability to listen at 1.5 or 2x speed, or rewind as much as I want to,” said Neena Cherayil, MD, another of Siegler’s fellow Neurology residents. “I’m an aural learner and really benefit from listening to educational material that’s presented in more of a narrative format. And I really enjoy the passionate dialogue and lively discussions that help me think about issues in a new way.”

To date, Siegler has produced more than 40 episodes of BrainWaves and has included more than 40 faculty, house staff, and other experts to help conceptualize, draft, and contribute to the content. And to ensure that as many people can access the episodes possible, they are available for download free-of-charge.

“Accessibility really is key,” Siegler said. “BrainWaves is certainly targeted toward a medical audience, but really it’s for anyone who is interested in neurology, neuroscience, or even just medicine in general. Our topics range from art to Zika.”

Medical education has always been an incubator for innovation in learning, with the Perelman School of Medicine at the forefront of digital learning for many years. In fact, PSOM was one of the first med schools to offer students online access to every lecture and course, meaning that they can opt to attend class in person or log in at another time to get the lectures and even re-watch them — accommodating students’ different learning styles and offering more flexibility in their day-to-day schedules.

“Podcasts are just the next step in the natural progression of digital learning. Even with the ability to read journals on a tablet or laptop, podcasts give you extra freedom. It’s much more convenient to listen to something for 10-15 minutes than to try and read through a journal, whether it’s on paper or digital,” Siegler said.

Siegler’s podcast, BrainWaves, is available for download. More information can be found at

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