Flash Mob in Medical Education – What Can Go Wrong? And is it Wrong?

Blog by Dr. Aneesh Basheer and Dr. Magi Murugan

A flash mob refers to a group of individuals who gather at a common place to create awareness or sensitize an audience to some topic usually with no prior information to the latter. Flash mobs have become common in several fields including social awareness programs, business, management and information technology. Its potential as a teaching-learning method in medical education is largely unexplored.

In biomedical research the term has a slightly different implication. We searched MEDLINE using key words “flash mob” and “medical education” and found fewer than ten articles. Of these, two papers used the term “flash mob research” and cited this as a novel method of assembling the study investigators at different study centers.1,2 Here the persons involved in the conduct of the study were gathered at study areas by text, e-mail or similar mass communication methods. This shortened the time to complete research and reduced bias in observations, especially for outcomes that require manual measurements like respiratory rate. Another report mentions flash mobs among many other methods employed by the authors to create awareness on organ donation in Brazil.3

However, the popular flash mob is a different ball game. A traditional flash mob uses an unannounced gathering of individuals at a common place and subsequent use of one or more methods such as skits, dances or songs (usually dances) to attract the attention of an unorganized audience. This is followed by the delivery of key messages or by the spreading of awareness regarding some topic of interest. We planned to employ this technique to impart key messages to a mixed audience of undergraduate medical students, postgraduate students, nursing students and faculty at our medical school.

Our medical school organizes an annual event christened “Scientific society day” that provides opportunity to students and faculty to showcase the research they have done during the preceding year in the form of posters and a lead talk by eminent researchers. We decided to sensitize the mixed audience present at the lead talk to the subject of euthanasia. This was chosen as the Supreme court of India had, in a recent judgement, legalized passive euthanasia; this was a pathbreaking verdict given the repercussions of the same in a very conservative society like ours. A team of fifteen undergraduate students in their second year of medical school were requested to organize a flash mob immediately after the lead talk in order to spread awareness regarding the various aspects of euthanasia and recent developments. The preparations were overseen by a couple of faculty members.

Students performed the flash mob quite enthusiastically; a few of them who had deliberately camouflaged themselves among the audience in a scattered manner initiated the mob, taking the audience by surprise. Subsequently teams of students entered the foray from various entry points of the venue and joined the mob. The major activity was different forms of dance to a background of music in various languages and of popular genres. The mob concluded with three students displaying banners on euthanasia and one student gave a rehearsed message on key issues related to euthanasia.

Despite loud cheers from the audience (predominantly students), we concluded that the experiment was a flop. Expressions of revulsion on the faces of a good number of the faculty audience, direct inquiries by some of them regarding the intent and content of the activity, informal feedback obtained by the organizers after the event and the overall evaluation by the organizing faculty who were part of the audience provided sufficient cues.

Our failure to create any positive ripples could be attributed to several factors. First, as with any innovation in medical education, resistance and negative feedback was expected here as well. However, inertia to accept change alone could not explain the setback. Second, we probably overestimated the organizational skills of students who were naïve to this technique. Lack of proper supervision and oversight by the faculty (a potential consequence of the above) made any corrective action impossible prior to the performance and was in fact posed as a query to the organizers by some of the audience. Third, students in their enthusiasm (for which they cannot be blamed) appeared showcasing their cultural or artistic talents rather than fulfilling the initial task of attracting the attention of an uninformed audience. Fourth, in our haste to implement an innovation, we did not carry out a proper background check for similar experiences elsewhere.4 We failed to adapt the concept of flash mob to the medical school atmosphere; neither did we attempt to ingrain within the performance some expressions of what was going to be unveiled at the end. The commonplace flash mob uses the initial performance to concentrate the scattered audience to a nodal point and uses that momentary attentiveness to deliver a key learning or message; the initial performance is usually unrelated to the conceptual ending. Had we modified the performance to reflect occult or obvious elements of euthanasia, the audience might have been primed to readily receive what was in store at the end.

Nonetheless, we cannot label this exercise irrecoverably futile. One must admit that the performance ensured that similar to the effect of a conventional flash mob, the attention of the audience was heightened, albeit momentarily. The curiosity of sorts, starting with why this performance, how long and what next probably kept them aroused. We apprehend whether a similar effect could have been produced by any other usual mode like a PowerPoint presentation or a highly intellectual lecture on euthanasia. Hence it holds promise as a potential tool to transfer knowledge, and more importantly attitudes. It could also find application as “attention-spikers” during monotonous lectures and conferences. Adapting the flash mob to suit medical school audiences and concept-driven attention-capturing performances could make it an invaluable addition to the existing armamentarium of medical education methods.


Authors: Dr. Aneesh Basheer and Dr. Magi Murugan, Departments of Medicine and Anatomy, Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences, Puducherry, India – 605014; Email: basheeraneesh@gmail.com (Dr. Aneesh) and drmagimurugan@gmail.com (Dr. Magi).

Author Bio: Dr. Aneesh Basheer is Professor of Medicine and Vice-Dean of Medical Education at Pondicherry Institute of Medical Sciences; he is currently pursuing the FAIMER fellowship in Medical Education and working on implementing Evidence-based medicine in the curriculum of undergraduate medical students. Dr. Magi Murugan is Professor of Anatomy and coordinates the UNESCO bioethics chair activities at the institute.



[1] Semler MW, Stover DG, Copland AP et al. Flash Mob Research. Chest. 2013 Jun;143(6):1740–4.

[2] Alsma J, van Saase JLCM, Nanayakkara PWB et al. The Power of Flash Mob Research: Conducting a Nationwide Observational Clinical Study on Capillary Refill Time in a Single Day. Chest. 2017;151(5):1106–13.

[3] Dal Pupo B, Zanon M, Tech AW, Cruz LV et al. Two-year Experience of the “Organ Donation Week” of the Federal University of Health Sciences of Porto Alegre, Brazil. Transplant Proc. 2016 Sep;48(7):2250–2.

[4] Whiteker JS. Flash mob dance: empowering survivors. Clin J Oncol Nurs. 2010 Dec;14(6):679–80.

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