Dec. 2, 2021

UCalgary teaching tool reaches learners worldwide

Cumming School of Medicine alumnus leads innovation that brings medical education guide to the world
Yan Yu
Yan Yu College of Family Physicians of Canada

It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a range of unique challenges for students seeking higher education — but medical students around the world seem to be discovering an unexpected treasure, a guide built by a University of Calgary alumnus.

The Calgary Guide To Understanding Disease was founded nine years ago by Dr. Yan Yu, MD’14, while he was a medical student in the Faculty of Medicine, now the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). This free, online teaching tool provides medical students with coherently and concisely explained medical information that connects the causes and mechanisms of diseases with their clinical findings and complications.


The Calgary Guide's slide for Myocardial Infarction: Findings on Physical Exam.

Used to help students truly understand how and why diseases manifest, The Calgary Guide is experiencing an explosion of new users since early 2020. Global website traffic has increased by over 200 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic and users from more than 180 countries have visited the site.  

“During COVID, The Calgary Guide is being used much more frequently, by at least 3,000 individuals per day from around the world. Anecdotally, and in surveys of UCalgary medical students, users describe it as time saving and a useful way to support their learning,” says Yu.

Yu started the guide as a tool for his own learning. He had found that medical education often involved lists: lists of disease signs, symptoms, and complications, which were often not explained well enough for students without specialized knowledge to quickly understand the subject matter. He decided to gather a group of like-minded colleagues, and to work with the school administration and Academic Technologies team, to help improve the tool. 

Flow charts optimize learning

The Calgary Guide contains concise information about more than 800 medical topics formatted into flow charts that allow students to understand disease manifestation in a logical way. It aims to optimize learning for students, given their limited time and the large amount of material covered in medical school. This format allows students to engage with the material rather than relying on rote memorization.

“We’ve been excited to see the audience for [The Calgary Guide] grow exponentially. It has been a vehicle for student collaboration with faculty, with an international, multi-lingual audience,” says Mike Paget, manager of academic technologies with the Office of Undergraduate Medical Education (UME) at the CSM.

“Working with Dr. Yu, we’ve been able to iteratively update The Guide over the last decade and will continue to support this initiative.”

Group photo

The first group of The Calgary Guide volunteers, 2012.

“What Dr. Yu and the Calgary Guide team have done so well is focusing on something that students struggle with and for which there wasn’t something great ‘out there’ to help,” says Dr. David Keegan, MD, The Calgary Guide’s faculty strategic adviser. “It was a privilege to help Dr. Yu back then understand the pitfalls and opportunities of leading open-access curricular resources.” 

Volunteer students and faculty ensure accuracy

Student involvement has been key since the inception of The Calgary Guide. Every year, more than 30 students from around the world help develop and edit slides that volunteer faculty at UCalgary review to ensure accuracy. The content team also includes international collaborators who assist by translating the material into six other languages: French, German, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Indonesian, and Slovenian. Content in The Calgary Guide is scrutinized and revisited regularly to ensure it remains relevant and accurate.

“UCalgary should be incredibly proud of this novel resource,” Dr. Sarah Weeks, MD’99, assistant dean of Undergraduate Medical Education. "UME at CSM has a tradition of innovation. The Calgary Guide team exemplifies this and as a result has improved knowledge for thousands of medical learners. The impact of this is immeasurable.”

To further enhance The Guide, Dr. Yu recently began developing YouTube videos to complement the slides. His initial videos discuss the most popular and most studied flow charts in the collection.

In 2022, The Calgary Guide will celebrate its 10th anniversary. While The Guide is evolving and leveraging social media for its promotion, its founding principles remain the same: understanding is better than memorization, the “why” behind physical manifestation can be taught simply, and quality learning materials should be free of charge to any learner.

David Keegan is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and associate dean of Office of Faculty Development and Performance at the CSM. He is a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health.

Sarah Weeks is a clinical associate professor in the departments of Cardiac Sciences and Medicine and assistant dean (pre-clerkship) of Undergraduate Medical Education at the CSM. She is a member of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute.