Tag Archives: bronchology

Climbing the learning curve

Cerro Bonete, Aconcagua Argentina (Photo H. Colt/W. Sanchez)

As bronchology and interventional pulmonology programs around the world increasingly incorporate assessment tools and checklists into their training programs, there is going to be much discussion around learning curves. A learning curve usually represents in graphic form the rate at which something is learned over time or repeated experiences. By plotting learning curves, teachers can (1) assess the learnability of a specific task, subject or skill, (2) determine whether the task, subject or skill is satisfactorily mastered, and (3) document the time it takes for subjects to learn a particular task, subject or skill.

The plot of a learning curve may be steep or gradual. It may also be curvilinear or plateau-like. Interpretations of a learning curve, however, depend on which variables are plotted on the horizontal x-axis and vertical y-axis of the graph, as well as on one’s interpretation of the language used to describe the graph. For example, when time is on the horizontal x-axis, and the amount of material learned is on the vertical y-axis axis, a steep learning curve (and contrary to the popular use of the term steep) can mean that a subject is rapidly learned, or that the majority of the topic is rapidly mastered. A difficult to learn task, on the other hand, would have a more shallow curve that extends more horizontally over time.

In common english, however, a steep learning curve is usually meant to describe something that is initially difficult to learn. As explained in a Wikipedia article on the subject (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_curve), this is due to the “metaphorical interpretation of the curve as a hill to climb, and for which a steep slope is more tedious”. The article argues that using words such as long or short, and difficult or easy are perhaps better and less confusing than using words like steep or shallow for describing learning curves.

Another interesting aspect about learning curves is how they vary depending on whether the graph represents data for an individual or for a group (averaged) of learners. Individual learning almost always occurs in a series of upward and downward slopes separated by horizontal plateaus during which no new learning occurs. Averages, on the other hand, usually have smooth curves that can be expressed as mathematical functions. These curves may be sigmoidal, exponential, or free-formed, especially if the learning curve is plotting the amount of learning (on the vertical axis) versus experience/time (on the horizontal axis). In the case of a sigmoidal curve, describing someone as being on the “steep” portion of the learning curve has an entirely different meaning from describing the person as being on the lower or higher horizontal portion of the curve. 

Using serial assessments such as BSTAT (Bronchoscopy Skills and Tasks Assessment Tool) is an excellent way for learners to determine where they are on the flexible bronchoscopy learning curve. Areas that warrant additional training are identified, and teachers can use objective measures to justify the feedback that is crucial to all good learning programs.

Open Horizons

Less than 24 hours after leaving the WABIP World Congress in Rochester Minnesota, I spent a day climbing to a wonderful spot high above a bed of clouds in Southern California. An open horizon, blue skies and a soft wind caressed my face as I stood virtually alone on a rocky peak. Pausing just long enough for a protein bar, a swig of water and a photograph, my thoughts wandered for a moment back to the events of our international medical meeting. With almost 9000 members representing more than 55 different national medical associations, the WABIP has truly become an international medical society. New scholarship programs and visiting professor travel grants target leaders in developing countries, an expanding WABIP Newsletter reaches out to more than 4000 members who consistently open and read the research, education, humanitarian, and clinically-relevant materials contained therein, a growing WABIP Academy enriches membership with credible libraries of information, committees function functionally, leadership changes are transparent and bathed in dialogue, three representative scientific journals remain affordable and pertinent, our world congress and three regional meetings are almost overwhelming with useful information, Train-the-Trainer and other Bronchoscopy International educational programs positively influence physician-educators around the world, and our Whats App groups network more than 2000 physicians from thirty different countries in real-time.


But what really impresses me is how our leadership strives to address, understand and nurture diversity. The new chair is a woman and a member of the Latin American bronchology community, thereby breaking an IP glass ceiling (prior chairs were men from Asia, Europe or the United States). The treasurer is an Australian and President of the next Asian Pacific meeting scheduled for March, 2019. The two next World Congress presidents are from China (2020) and France (2022), and our newly-elected Vice-Chair is a well-known opinion leader from Japan. Furthermore, Committee members and Committee chairs are selected using a democratic call for nominations and volunteers with special care to represent the global community, and the WABIP social media/Facebook presence is growing almost exponentially.


I am proud of this association, and I encourage members to take an active role, not only in growing their regional and national bronchology/IP societies, but also in the WABIP. Collaboration and Cooperation are keys to our long-term success, which means greater equality among training programs regardless of their medical environment, more rapid dissemination of innovative technologies and techniques, more productive conversations with industry sponsors and equipment manufacturers, and most of all, greater steps forward in our efforts to help patients combat the effects of lung, airway, and pleural diseases.

Right on!