What should ‘lifelong learning’ really mean to primary care physicians?

Apichai Wattanapisit is associate professor of family medicine, School of Medicine, Walailak University, Thailand

What should ‘lifelong learning’ really mean to primary care physicians? As a human being, an individual learns new things since birth to improve their abilities in several aspects to survive and live. As physicians we learn to gain specific knowledge and skills to become competent. Learning happens in both informal and formal ways throughout a long journey (4-6 years as a medical student and 2-4 years a resident or registrar) to become a primary care physician. Is it the end of the pathway? No, a primary care physician still needs to learn throughout the career path. Lifelong learning is a crucial element to maintain the standard of practices and develop the future career.

What does ‘lifelong learning’ really mean to primary care physicians?

In 1996, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) transformed the concepts of lifelong education or recurrent education to lifelong learning.1 The term lifelong learning is defined as ‘the continuation of conscious learning throughout the lifespan’.1 Lifelong learning has been a marketable term in medical education. This term is widely perceived as an ultimate goal for undergraduate and graduate medical education as well as continuing professional development.

Lifelong learning is a concept implemented in undergraduate medical education to prepare medical students to be future doctors.

Lifelong learning is a concept implemented in undergraduate medical education to prepare medical students to be future doctors. A systematic review and meta-analysis of Babenko et al. revealed that the orientation towards lifelong learning has been progressively developed from students and residents to practicing professionals.3 These findings reflect that lifelong learning can be improved along the undergraduate to graduate medical education and career continuum.

Primary care physicians need to maintain and improve their clinical knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Literally, lifelong learning can be interpreted as to learn every single day. The question is what the essential factors of lifelong learning are.

The following key components of lifelong learning are helpful for primary care physicians to be conscious as independent lifelong learners: (i) ‘learning beliefs and motivation’ (e.g., perceptions towards the importance of learning new professional knowledge and skills), (ii) ‘attention to learning opportunities’ (e.g., attending continuing medical education programmes or medical conferences, reading medical journals), and (iii) ‘skills in information seeking’ (e.g., using appropriate electronic databases).3

Lifelong learning is an important concept of medical education. The key components of lifelong learning, including beliefs and motivation, learning opportunities, and information seeking skills are crucial for primary care physicians to become independent lifelong learners.


  1. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Lifelong learning for all: meeting of the education committee at ministerial level, 16–17 January 1996. Paris: OECD; 1996.
  2. Babenko O, Koppula S, Daniels L, Nadon L, Daniels V. Lifelong learning along the education and career continuum: meta-analysis of studies in health professions. J Adv Med Educ Prof 2017; 5(4): 157-163.
  3. Hojat M, Veloski JJ, Gonnella JS. Measurement and correlates of physicians’ lifelong learning. Acad Med 2009; 84(8): 1066-1074.

Featured photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

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