The COVID-19 pandemic has caused sweeping systemic changes to the landscape of medicine and society as a whole in the few short months since the virus arose. The pandemic has impacted all medical specialties, and those still in training have experienced significant disruptions to their education. Medical schools were quick to respond to the spread of the virus to keep medical students safe. The first warnings from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry (URSMD) administration came in early March — students were informed that those who intended to travel during spring break might be required to quarantine upon their return. At the time, the magnitude of the impending pandemic was unknown, and social distancing measures were still on the horizon.
Initially, physical classes were canceled until late March, by which time any students who had traveled to a COVID-19 hotspot would have completed a 14-day quarantine. The plan was to resume regular classes and clinical experiences following this disruption. However, it became clear within a matter of weeks that this would be impossible. For the safety of students, faculty and patients, it was eventually decided that all physical classes and clinical experiences would be canceled for the foreseeable future. Students at all levels were placed in an uncertain position as it became increasingly clear that in-person learning would not be possible for the remainder of the year. This uncertainty fostered fear and anxiety among students — many of whom were also dealing with the stress regarding their safety and that of friends and family.
For preclinical students like myself, we have been utilizing remote learning for the remainder of the year, which has been a significant disruption to our training. In particular, clinical learning has been impaired due to the difficulty of mastering medical history taking and physical exam techniques over Zoom instead of in-person practice with classmates and standardized patients. Another challenge has been coordinating exam proctoring for students who are in different time zones. Some students who have been planning summer research at other institutions or projects involving clinical or volunteer work have had their plans canceled.
Second-year students have been particularly concerned about the logistics of their upcoming United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE) Step 1 exams, given that social distancing measures preclude the use of physical test sites. Third-year students have been unable to complete their clinical rotations and have experienced considerable stress due to the ongoing uncertainty in scheduling away rotations for their fourth year. Fourth-year students have had their graduation and Match Day celebrations converted to online events. Graduation has also been moved up. Depending on their specialty of choice, some newly minted physicians have been called upon to begin their residency training early to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many student doctors have been frustrated because they are unable to contribute to patient care during this crisis. It has been challenging to find ways to help without potentially compromising patient safety. Despite these challenges, medical students at all levels and from all over the country have stepped up to do what they can to support the medical community during this crisis. During the initial stages of the pandemic, students volunteered their time to provide childcare for physicians called to the front lines and organized efforts to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers. Additionally, students have made an effort to publicize clinical trials that need healthy volunteers, and the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) has initiated a program to recruit volunteer lab techs to help with COVID-19 research. The administration at URSMD has also sent out a request for medical student volunteers who might be called upon to assist in patient transport, ventilator preparation, and supply transport, as well as serving as respiratory care assistants if needed.
Medical education faces challenges moving forward. At this time, it is unclear when or if in-person education can resume. There have already been substantial efforts to promote methods of distance learning for medical students and residents, including Zoom-based lectures and an increased emphasis on online resources. However, this leaves something to be desired for hands-on clinical education, which does not lend itself well to remote learning. It is not clear when clinical rotations can be safely resumed, or when students will once again be able to schedule away rotations. The uncertainty surrounding away rotations is of particular concern for those students who are preparing to apply to residency in the coming year. It also remains to be seen how this crisis will affect the residency match process in the future. Many students have also had research or volunteering opportunities canceled due to the pandemic, and the future of USMLE board exams remains in doubt for the time being.
As a whole, medical educators and students have risen to the challenge of COVID-19. Medical educators have dedicated extra time and effort to minimize disruptions and to maximize students’ learning experience. Many medical students have helped their communities wherever possible and are responding admirably to the unprecedented disturbance in their education. Reactions like these foster hope that both students and educators will continue to work tirelessly to respond to crises as they arise.
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First-year Medical Student
University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry