How e-learning can help treat a sick child

on April 6th, 2011

Learning online has become an increasingly popular way of teaching new clinical skills and techniques. Here, Dr Nicholas Blackwell of the University of Leicester Medical School explains how a new e-learning resource is helping clinical staff improve their paediatric skills.

The internet is a massive resource with fantastic potential, but it can be a double edged sword, sometimes encouraging patients to self diagnose – often erroneously. However, one of the most exciting uses of the internet is the potential that it offers for on the job training for all those involved in the health service, from healthcare assistants through to GPs and senior consultants.

Keeping up to speed

Online learning is becoming an increasingly popular tool in clinical education. One huge advantage that e-learning has is the speed with which new techniques, initiatives and research can be incorporated into any online learning material. By comparison, the time that it can take text books and papers to be published means that the materials may be out of date as soon as they hit the shelves.

However, e-learning isn’t simply a cheap form of education: its development requires a substantial investment of both time and money. Producing high quality e-learning material is far more complex than simply placing pages of text or presentations online; learners expect to be interested and engaged.

The effective e-learning tool Creating an effective clinical online resource is a complex task, and there are several key factors that need to be addressed if the resource is to be effective. A good online resource should include some, or all, of the following:

A substitute for experience Recognising that e-learning can be a powerful training tool, in 2009 the Department of Health (England) commissioned a not-for-profit website resource, Spotting the Sick Child ( specifically designed to help clinicians that come into contact with sick children quite regularly, but may not have in depth paediatric experience, expertise or training. This resource was free to NHS users for the first 12 months, and is now available for an annual subscription of £5.

Working with sick children can be difficult for a range of reasons, and the amount of experience needed to make an accurate diagnosis hard to come by. When faced with a child complaining of illness, the first dilemma is deciding whether it is a serious illness requiring immediate action such as hospital admission. But this isn’t always easy to determine. For example, does a child presenting with a high fever have a viral, self-limiting illness or a more serious bacterial illness? In addition, symptoms like fits or drowsiness usually have very different causes and meaning in children than adults, whilst deterioration usually happens more quickly. This means that making a mistake could have more serious consequences.

Reaching people online Fortunately, improving the skills and knowledge needed to diagnose a sick child more confidently isn’t difficult: experience and some reasonably basic teaching in paediatrics is all a trained clinician really needs. So, when the DoH commissioned Spotting the Sick Child, it was decided that an online resource would be the most efficient and cost effective way of reaching as many health professionals possible.

Not only would classroom based training be expensive and resource intensive, but the aim was to make the resource as close to real life situations as possible i.e. through the use of video clips as opposed to words or photographs. As a result, Spotting the Sick Child contains over five hours of video clips of real patients and was filmed in one of the UK’s busiest emergency departments. It also includes film of genuine paediatric problems such as inconsolability, the quiet, listless child who is seriously ill, a non-blanching rash in a child with meningitis, children developing respiratory failure, severe croup and fitting children amongst others. This enables users to come as close as possible to experiencing the real situations, ensuring that they are better equipped to identify and deal with a seriously ill child.

The resource also includes sections on assessing seven common symptoms in children, again illustrated with real examples. Users can make the material relevant to their own specific training needs through the My Learning section which enables users to create their own programme and track their progress and also has a section where the learner can test themselves using real scenarios with real patients.

So, the next time an ill child comes through the door, as they will on a regular basis, it pays to be as prepared as possible. Start by using the tools and training packages available to get the knowledge and experience that will benefit these most vulnerable patients. With so many exciting resources being developed, and so many advances in training technology, you may find the experience both educational and enjoyable.

The Spotting the Sick Child (Department of Health) online version can be accessed via The original DVD version is available from

Author background

Nicholas Blackwell PhD, FIITT (Fellow of the Institute of Information Technology Training) is the Managing Director of OCB Media ( which specialises in the provision of e-learning facilities to the medical industry.