The next generation of physicians was raised with information at their fingertips, yet studying medicine in the age of Google Search comes with its own set of unique challenges. To uncover how the habits, preferences and tendencies of medical and pre-medical students were shaped by growing up in the digital era, the Merck Manuals surveyed 180 students at the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Annual Convention in February.

The survey found 68 percent of students received their first cell phone by the time they were 14 years old. For many students, that's before they enter high school, and online tools have become ingrained into their study habits. Nearly one in three (30 percent) said they go online or use a mobile device to search for medical information more than 20 times per day.

"We live in a high-speed world," said David, a student at Hillsborough Community College in Florida. "In the time it takes me to walk through a library door, I could have already downloaded exactly what I needed on my phone."

Students were also asked to rank their preferred sources of medical information. For their first choice, 47 percent picked Google and 32 percent chose a medical website – often those that appeared in the Google results. Only 7 percent turned to their textbook first.

Yet students admit the internet can be a minefield when it comes to finding reliable information. Eighty-three percent said confirming the credibility of an online source is one of the primary obstacles they face while searching for medical information online. Other hurdles students say they encounter include pay walls (39 percent), the recent surge in fake news (32 percent), and an overabundance of ads (24 percent).

Nearly all students surveyed (99 percent) affirmed that growing up in the digital age has impacted their medical education. When asked how:

  • 58 percent said they can more efficiently look up answers to questions;
  • 19 percent said they can study anywhere, anytime;
  • 13 percent believe they can more quickly adopt new technologies; and only
  • 9 percent of students indicated that technology is primarily a distraction.
Many students are actually using social media as a gateway to more visually compelling medical content. Forty-five percent of students said they have found YouTube a valuable resource for more visually compelling medical content.