[Editors Note: We recently had a conversation with Health Tap CEO Ron Gutman, which we look forward to presenting next week. Stay tuned!]

As medical students, we learn countless facts about the human body, mechanisms of drugs, and physiologic pathways, in hopes that one day we will use this knowledge to help patients—perhaps provide a better understanding of their disease, ease their fears, or offer a cure.

Patients, especially now in the age of Google, come to their doctors with many questions about their various pathologies. Undoubtedly one of the most crucial skills for a budding physician to develop is the ability to anticipate and address patient concerns.

HealthTap University allows medical students to practice this, at their own convenience, online. Students even receive the guidance of established physicians.

HealthTap is an innovative new social network that improves the way doctors and patients communicate. Via HealthTap, patients can ask medical questions online, free of charge, and quickly receive a credible response from more than 6,000 licensed physicians. Upwards of 500 reputable healthcare groups are also on the site, including renowned organizations such as Cleveland Clinic and Mount Sinai Hospital.

Now, medical students can assist in answering patient questions through the HealthTap University program. While not exactly the same as visiting with patients in the hospital or clinic, exposure to patient questions on the site gives students an idea of the kinds of questions they may be asked by patients on the job, and experience answering them.

HealthTap U students write responses to real-life questions and submit them for review. Physicians may then evaluate the answers for accuracy and edit as necessary. Physician-approved answers are published with a line under the answer that acknowledges the medical student’s contribution. It’s a creative, win-win situation, since having medical students write the bulk of the answer can save time for busy physicians. In turn, medical students actively learn how to answer patient questions and start building their online credibility.

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I have had the honor of being involved with HealthTap U alongside a group of esteemed student colleagues from several different medical schools. I answer questions in my free time, and I truly believe it has strengthened my medical expertise and helped me gain experience in addressing real patient concerns.

For fun, I answer questions pertaining to my personal medical interests, such as pregnancy and women’s health, or anything else I feel like learning about at the moment. HealthTap questions have led me to read up on gestational diabetes, Barrett’s esophagus, autism, and pneumonia, just to name a few. But more than being a productive pastime, HealthTap U has been an invaluable supplement to my clinical education. During my internal medicine clerkship, I would come home and search for questions related to what we had discussed in lecture that day, or topics related to my patients’ conditions.

Using a combination of my own knowledge and additional research to answer questions, I was able to help patients and reinforce my understanding of concepts at the same time. Though sometimes my responses are published without changes, physicians often tweak them; they have taught me so much from their feedback. Even after answers are published, other doctors can comment or add their own answers, and I learn from those as well. Several HealthTap University students, including myself, have answered questions correctly both on rounds and board exams because of knowledge gained from HealthTap U.

Physicians are equally excited about this new avenue to mentorship. One physician on HealthTap, Dr. David Wyatt, raves about HealthTap University:

“In private practice we are away from the university world and having the ability to mentor active, bright medical students is a great addition to my practice of medicine! I see this only improving healthcare going forward!”

Dr. Quang Nguyen adds,

“The quality of their answers far exceeded my expectations so far. I think it’s a great idea and I look forward to seeing more great answers from HealthTap University students.”

As a medical student, I deeply appreciate the willingness of these doctors to mentor us, and I have found HealthTap University to be an enjoyable, engaging way to connect with patients, physicians, and other students. Though still in its infancy, HealthTap is a leading example of how we can use social media to enhance physician-patient communication and medical education.

Fellow med students, I encourage you to take advantage of this unique opportunity! The student population of HealthTap University is ever-growing, and we would love for you to join us. If you would like to participate, contact me via the iMedicalApps contact page or twitter.