Social Textbooks and the iPad – How the Medical Community Could Benefit from Dynamic E-books

It’s probably not an exaggeration to predict medical students of the next decade will not lift a physical textbook. In fact, even ownership of a discrete entity, formerly referred to as a “textbook’, may be a historical footnote. Instead, students may simply rent the chapters they need for a particular course, paying a recurring subscription fee to the publisher for the period of usage. This system could foster innovation and allow for dynamic ebooks that change with standard of care, as I’ll discuss in this post.

For many medical students, who have grown numb after repeatedly paying $100 to $200 per book, this more financially sane model can’t come soon enough. In fact, college students buying multiple texts for a course lasting just two or three months are probably even more eager for such a system.

However, while renting textbooks may seem like a strange and wondrous departure for those of us who still pridefully maintain shelves of outdated medical textbooks, the more necessary revolution will actually be upending the illusion of completion when a textbook finally reaches the printing press.

By this, I am suggesting the barrier between finished textbooks and the rapidly evolving nature of medical knowledge most certainly needs to be more porous. Going even further, the interactive and non-linear nature of learning are at odds with the centuries-old format of a linear, immutable text.

This is not to say that textbooks are anachronisms. Something very valuable comes out of the care and scrutiny of an author polishing each paragraph and page with great care. But, why should the craftsmanship stop at the moment of publication?

This is where the iPad and its future kin come in. The proliferation of ebooks and, in particular, e-textbooks will be great for students and practitioners alike. At a minimum, ubiquitous availability and more reasonable pricing models will open the doors to more sales and more happy customers.

But, this will just be the beginning. The real golden opportunity will come from continuing the engagement of the authors with the readers and, even more importantly, the readers with each other.

What this would open is a world where learning occurs just as much in the “wild” as it does in the classroom and where the roles of students and teachers start to intertwine. In other words, something like the real world, rather than the sterile enclosure of the lecture hall.

I imagine the authors of a book continuing their engagement with their readers and even acting as occasional consultants, further enlarging and enriching their reputations. I imagine a “book” that changes over time and re-engages the readers when new information arrives or when they perform searches on their device.  We all know how change can happen instantaneously in the medical field – these changes or new evidence based care could be implemented immediately with ebooks on the iPad – much like updating an app.

In short, what I am looking forward to is an electronic book that soars beyond the simple conjugation of a screen and a book – and is significantly more dynamic than the tangible good.


Felasfa Wodajo, MD

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7 Responses to Social Textbooks and the iPad – How the Medical Community Could Benefit from Dynamic E-books

  1. ipod Med February 13, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    True, a book that changes with updates automatically would be nice, but I’m sure publishers would still charge large sums for updates. As far as I’m concerned, people will still have to pay the same amount one way or the other.

  2. Felasfa Wodajo February 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm #

    Yes, publishers are hungry for any source of revenue they can find. And I doubt these additional revenues will be returned to the authors. But, having the opportunity for smaller but a recurring revenue source may make them less desperate to recoup all their revenues at the first purchase encounter.

    I think the value to the authors is in having a long term relationship with their readers, and the more successful ones will eventually learn to self-publish and would then have the same distributon access as the big publishers.

  3. Marc-Emile February 13, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    I agree with your post, and this is somewhat similar with what I tried to achieve with my app. However, this is basically what is already being done by the people at UpToDate. The main drawback, in my opinion, is the amount of money involved. Although some medical information quickly becomes outdated, some basic info still holds true, and having to pay $250-500 / year for that info quickly adds up (and is usually more than the price of a textbook to begin with). It is definitely the way of the future, but we’ll have to pay for it.

    Now if only the guys at UpToDate could release an iPad app…

  4. Iltifat Husain February 13, 2010 at 7:34 pm #


    UpToDate does have a mobile version of their website, and it actually functions surprisingly well. But you’re right, it would be great if they had a stand alone application so you didn’t need a dedicated internet connection to use it! Since UpToDate is updated frequently, I’m sure the app would have to be updated frequently withing the app itself. UpToDate is really only text and pictures so I don’t think it would be THAT massive of an app — or, that hard to turn to mobile form.

  5. Marc-Emile February 14, 2010 at 7:20 am #

    Iltifat –

    Actually, UpToDate has a Palm (! retro ;-)) stand alone application. The only problem (in my opinion) is that reading an UpToDate topic on a mobile device like the iPhone is a pain: it takes too long, and you’d rather read it on a computer screen, which is usually nearby anyways.

    That’s one of the reasons I believe the iPad will be such a hit product for us. It will (hopefully) create a whole new way of providing interactive medical content that can easily be uptated. Interaction, I believe, is the keyword for what’s to come on the iPad.

  6. Iltifat Husain February 14, 2010 at 8:36 am #


    Interesting, I didn’t know that! Thats a good point though, because Apple showed off how the NY Times site would look through their iPad, I bet UpToDate would have the same potential to look completely more functional. Imagine how cool it would have been if Steve Jobs had actually done that though? – he would have guaranteed thousands more iPads got sold. I was surprised his keynote didn’t have anything medical related though, unlike his prior ones.

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