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Osmosis: Interrupting Med Students’ ‘Cram and Forget’ Learning Cycles

From left to right, Ryan Haynes and Shiv Gaglani present at DreamIt Health Demo Day. Photo courtesy of DreamIt Ventures.

From left to right, Ryan Haynes and Shiv Gaglani present at DreamIt Health Demo Day. Photo courtesy of DreamIt Ventures.

It’s no secret that medical students have trouble internalizing all of the information thrown at them in the classroom and on rotations. Former Johns Hopkins students Shiv Gaglani and Ryan Haynes noticed this firsthand and came up with Osmosis, a platform to help medical students replace “cram-and-forget” cycles with methods that emphasize long-term retention.

We talked to Gaglani and Haynes about their new program and the resources it offers med students.


Describe Osmosis in your own words. 

Haynes: Osmosis is a web and mobile platform for medical students and physicians to learn and retain information. It started when Shiv and I were in the same anatomy group at Johns Hopkins – we learned a lot of material, but three weeks after it ended, Shiv asked me an anatomy question and I was completely blown away that I didn’t know the answer anymore. We both came to the realization that we were going to keep learning and forgetting things, and we thought, “maybe we’re not alone with this.”

Gaglani: We did some research and found that after two years of med school, almost half of information medical students learn is lost. The idea behind Osmosis was that we would find the most proven techniques to help retain information for a longer period of time and implement those into a user interface that’s easy to use and intuitive, and one that you can use every day

What techniques have you used on Osmosis to help medical students learn? 

Haynes: One of our techniques extends from what is called the “Baker-baker paradox.” Say you show two groups of people a picture of a man and tell one group that his name is Mr.Baker, and the other group that the man is a baker. One week later, if you ask the groups of people to recall that information, most in the first group have forgotten that his name is Mr.Baker while most in the second have remembered that he is a baker. This is because the name “Baker” creates one association in your brain, but the profession “baker” enables you to make many connections with the man – the smell of baked goods, a baker’s hat and so on.  All of those extra connections helps you remember what the person does.

So if you put an example with a patient presenting a certain number of symptoms, people are more likely to remember it if you can use an example with a celebrity patient. We did a problem like this with Lance Armstrong. He was diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer, but he declined treatment with bleomycin because he did not want scarred lungs. Students who read this example are more likely to remember that one of the side effects of bleomycin is pulmonary fibrosis.

Gaglani: That’s just one example of how Osmosis leverages cognitive science to improve the learning experience. Other techniques include test-enhanced learning, spaced repetition, Fogg behavior model and collaborative learning. We’re very research-driven and have published three peer-reviewed papers in the past 1.5 years in journals such as the Annals of Internal Medicine and Innovations in Global Medical & Health Education. We also have a prospective study launching with medical faculty and researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago and University of Central Florida.

fb9448ef1649c0d0dfbd14513f5247e42b42a50fHow many users do you currently have? 

Gaglani: We have 23,000 users now, and they’re predominantly U.S. medical students. We also have pretty large populations in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. We’ve grown by 50 percent since the beginning of the year and expect to grow another 50 percent by the end of the year. We’re growing a lot faster this year…I think it’s getting more social and viral.

Who generates content? 

Haynes: There’s a core set of knowledge that every med student has to know, either for the Boards, Clinical wards or elsewhere. That core set can be created working with residents, attending physicians and fourth year medical students. We’ve worked with that to create a question bank – we’ll be launching 5,000 questions over ten clinical domains this month.

In addition, each time you have a course, your professor might be teaching something very specific that most medical students don’t need to know, so you can also write questions to fill in the gaps for what you need to know with your course exams. We also have an algorithm that can scan any course document a user uploads and automatically generate content based on what information is most likely to reappear on an exam. Combining these with the core question bank gives you a comprehensive way of reviewing material.

Are there any new updates on the horizon that we should know about?

Gaglani: We launched a series of partnerships this month alone and we’re continuing to add more. One of these is with MedScape (owned by webMD), a leading clinical care solution, and another is with Picmonic, a visual mnemonic platform. Essentially, we are able to recommend MedScape articles and Picmonic cards right alongside your documents. We have patient videos from ReelDx and visual mnemonics from Igmonic. We also have a global health education focus where we’re donating free Osmosis access to a number of schools in Southern Africa.

Brendan Pease

Brendan Pease

    Brendan Pease was MedTech Boston's first ever editorial and events intern. He is now a junior at Harvard University where he studies Molecular and Cellular Biology. He’s also the Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Harvard Science Review. Previously, he worked as a Market Intelligence intern at athenahealth and as a research assistant in the Goldberg Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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