Ryan Haynes is the co-founder and CTO of Osmosis, a medical education startup that aims to democratize access to healthcare education. He currently leads the team that builds learning tools based on cognitive science at Osmosis. Haynes completed his undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering at Georgia Tech, where he authored open access textbooks on linear algebra and computer science, and earned his PhD in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar.

How did your education and previous professional experience shape your current work at Osmosis?

My co-founder Shiv Gaglani and I started Osmosis fairly early on in medical school so the early days of Osmosis were a result of the challenges we and our classmates encountered in the midst of our education. We realized after anatomy, our first course in med school, that we were quickly forgetting material we’d known extremely well just a few weeks earlier. That did not bode well for the next four years of med school followed by three to seven years of residency, not to mention a lifetime of practice. Both of us had backgrounds in engineering and neuroscience, so we set out to build something to solve that problem based on known cognitive science techniques.

How do you hope your work at Osmosis will change the way we educate and train healthcare professionals?

One assumption that still underpins most med school curricula is that time equals competency. We break subjects into fixed periods of time, test only once at the end of that time period (and again two years later for boards), and assume that because students made a passing grade after completing that fixed-length course that they will be competent years later when they are asked to recall what they learned in an actual clinical setting.

This teaching model simply does not reflect the reality of how we know the brain learns. Forgetting is a normal part of how the brain organizes and makes sense of information. We’ve known for over 100 years that knowledge decays exponentially over time after our first encounter with it. However, if a learner is reminded of something a day later, a week later, a month later at increasingly spaced intervals, the learner’s forgetting curve flattens out and they can achieve long-term retention of what they’ve learned. One example of how Osmosis uses this principle is in our mobile app that sends push notifications to students about material they are at risk of forgetting. So when a student has moved on to the cardiovascular learning block in their curriculum, they’re still being reminded of their renal knowledge. This is one part of the solution and the one that addresses the original problem Shiv and I encountered when we were in med school.

Forgetting is a critical but less often discussed part of a competency-based education model. The more commonly discussed part is how to help students learn at their own pace. The Flipped Classroom model where students watch videos to learn foundational material on their own time and classroom time is spent working on cases with attending physician mentors is Osmosis’s answer to self-paced learning. We currently have more than 850 videos that cover physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and clinical reasoning, as well as thousands of formative assessment items that track a learner’s progress at a very granular level. Over two dozen universities that we work with use these videos and quizzes either to supplement their existing curriculum or to help move to a completely flipped model where problem-based and team-based learning can be deployed effectively. Students at schools that have not partnered with us yet and are looking for a more efficient and modern approach to their medical education can also sign up directly on the platform.

What really gets us excited is the potential that’s unlocked when hundreds of hours per student are spent in more productive activities like research or community service because they’re learning via a faster, more personalized learning experience. We get emails daily from students who tell us Osmosis has made med school more manageable and more enjoyable. It’s these messages combined with data showing students’ achieving long-term retention of the competencies they gain that drive us in our efforts to define what healthcare education looks like in the 21st century.

What broad trends do you think will have the most impact on learning in the years ahead?

Education is changing. Neuroscience has taught us a tremendous amount in the last few decades about learning. There seems to have been an exponential increase in the number of companies focused on e-learning. That means we have both the knowledge of how to improve higher education and the ability to scale those innovations. What we are starting to see is that some schools are embracing the emerging personalized model of education with adaptive learning and competency rather than time-based milestones, but also others that are slower to change. At the latter, schools are seeing the emergence of two curricula: the traditional one provided by the school and the other provided by outside sources like Osmosis and others. This is inevitable in an age where instant connectivity has created a generation of learners who are more empowered to direct their own learning than any before. One way Osmosis has helped schools that have encountered this phenomenon is to bridge the two curricula using AI and machine learning techniques. For example, an instructor can upload their powerpoint lecture and Osmosis reads the material and aligns the 2nd curriculum; content we provide as well as content from other providers that students commonly use. This helps course directors better understand the resources students are using and how those resources can be leveraged to create a more effective learning experience. The days of education as a static body of facts passed from a PowerPoint lecture to a student’s notebook via lecture are quickly coming to an end and being replaced by data-driven and evidence-based techniques that focus on individual learners’ needs.

What, if any, are the future plans for Osmosis?

Osmosis started in med school because, like many entrepreneurs, we focused on a problem that we encountered ourselves and wanted to solve for others. We work with outside groups as well to provide post-graduate education and Continuing Medical Education. More recently, we’re starting to expand to other allied health professions because we’ve found an increasing number of nursing, pharmacy, physician assistant, and physical therapy students have signed up for the platform. We even have patients and family members watching our videos and using our platform. Our vision is Everyone who cares for someone will learn by Osmosis because we want to be helpful to as many people as possible.

Image: Courtesy Ryan Haynes