The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed seismic transformation in education, particularly for Health Professional Education (HPE). Following a decade of imaginative innovations, the pandemic disrupted education systems everywhere, accelerated adoption of online technologies, forced major institutional rearrangements to accommodate hybrid instructional models, and laid bare pre-existing inequalities in access to educational resources within and among countries.

In the report “Challenges and Opportunities for Health Professional Education in the Post-Pandemic Era”, recently published by The Lancet, my co-authors and I evaluated how transformative developments have emerged, including in competency-based education, interprofessional education, and especially the large-scale application of information technology to education.

By tracking institutional and instructional reforms, we pose two crucial questions: What has happened to Health Professional Education over the past decade, and how has the Covid-19 pandemic altered the education process?

While the pandemic did not initiate such transformations, it greatly accelerated them, and they are likely to have a long-term impact on HPE. These educational developments converge with broader societal shifts exposed and fostered by the pandemic. 

The challenge is not merely to adapt to a new normal, but to proactively build a better normal. The first step in this endeavor is to develop novel ways of conceptualizing the models that could shape Health Professionals Education in the post-pandemic era.

Two main forces are driving this transformation. First, advances in educational technologies rooted in cognitive sciences are revolutionizing how we teach and learn. Second, the rapid evolution of health systems, marked by technological and organizational complexities, demands a more dynamic approach to education. The traditional notion of completing education before entering the workforce is no longer viable, as new jobs emerge and existing ones evolve faster than educational programs can keep pace.

This means that initial instruction is not sufficient to assure successful performance, either in terms of professional proficiency or of personal well-being. At the same time, new educational technologies make it possible to extend competency development beyond the traditional confines of formal full-time instruction, thus blurring the borders between the previously separate life stages of learning and work. 

Taken together, the two drivers of change demand a strategic shift in higher education towards a model that could be called Education for Life, with profound implications for both instructional and institutional design.

Based on our assessment, we offer three core recommendations, the first of which highlights the importance of adopting Education for Life as a guiding principle for health professional education. The concept of Education for Life encompasses three dimensions—learning throughout life, learning to promote and restore healthy lives, and learning to live one’s own life.

The challenge is not merely to adapt to a new normal, but to proactively build a better normal.

Learning throughout life refers to education that lasts a person’s entire lifetime, rather than merely during a defined period. Traditional educational models divide the life course into separate stages for learning, work, and retirement. Closed educational systems that front-load the content and cost of education before learners enter the labor market should be complemented and eventually superseded by open systems designed to meet the evolving needs for new competencies along the entire career trajectories of health professionals.

Learning to promote and restore healthy lives is at the heart of the substantive content of HPE, which centers on developing the competencies to preserve and improve the lives and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. In other words, this is education to help the lives of others through the technical expertise and service ethic of health professionals.

The final dimension, learning to live one's own life, highlights that part of the educational experience should enable learners to preserve their sense of purpose and mental well-being. This involves learning to balance work life and family life. It also means learning to cope with stress and adversity. Preventing burnout, however, is not only a matter of developing these individual capabilities but also of learning how to transform the organization of work in ways that promote the well-being of all team members, while promoting equity among the different categories of the health workforce.  In the face of increasing workloads, adequate staffing is essential for freeing up time to manage the stress and pressures that compromise wellbeing. 

If institutions providing HPE are to effectively implement the three dimensions of Education for Life, they must face the challenges and leverage the opportunities presented by technological innovations and health system disruptions, which were already present before the pandemic but have since become even more crucial drivers of change.

Health Professional Education will continue to be challenged to respond to societal concerns over health equity and to strengthen a new professionalism that incorporates concern for the individual and the community. Meeting these challenges while nurturing the core values of the healing professions should remain a vital goal for health educators.

Julio Frenk is a global public health expert and president of the University of Miami.