I packed my bags to head home for spring break, excited for a week with family and friends—a rare opportunity to recharge during the first year of medical school. I headed straight to the airport after my neurology exam at the beginning of March, not realizing that the short week at home I had originally planned would turn into months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a monumental shift in medical education. Social distancing requirements have effectively shut down all in-person learning—preclinical students are continuing class in virtual environments, and many clerkship students are in limbo with rotations being put on hold. The abrupt switch to remote medical education has left many medical students feeling sidelined in their desire to help the sick and worried about how this change will affect their development as physicians.
I share many of these concerns, but despite the incredible difficulties, this experience has come with invaluable lessons that will likely help us in the long run. Medical students emerging from the COVID-19 crisis will become better physicians because we will have been forced to learn crucial skills for medical practice on the fly—skills we could only gain in a crisis like this.
The necessity of suspending direct patient interaction for clerkship students has driven and empowered medical students to implement new and innovative strategies to help our medical teams and to care for our patients. In Philadelphia, where I attend medical school, students have organized online personal protective equipment (PPE) collection groups to help ease the burden of the severe shortage that hospitals face. Other medical students have formed COVID-19 rapid-response groups that focus on education of patients and students and provide nonclinical support to medical responders on the front lines. This strong drive to help and to innovate will be vital when we could, someday, be on the front lines in the face of a new, unknown disaster.
As the coronavirus situation evolves, many disruptions to medical education remain in flux, forcing medical students to adapt in real time. Like many other preclinical students, I’ve uprooted and moved back home until further notice—through the end of the semester, at least. While many medical students already forego in-person lectures in favor of online streaming, all small-group sessions, labs, and clinical simulations have gone virtual—or been postponed. Despite this, the depth and breadth of medical knowledge and skills we must learn has not gotten any lighter, and the bar has not been set any lower.
Studying pharmacology, practicing suturing, and refining patient history-taking skills from home has required extensive adaptation. But this could be a sign of things to come, as many advocate for curricular reform with the shortening of pre-clinical time and heavier reliance on virtual instruction. Furthermore, this ability to adapt can only help us as traditional patient care models shift towards telemedicine and virtual appointments.
Moving forward on this path toward becoming physicians will continue to be met with difficulty, uncertainty, and (occasional) failure. Many students have had board exams canceled; others have been left to celebrate their residency match days and eventual graduations virtually. It remains unknown what ramifications this lost time for clinical rotations will have or how virtual instruction of clinical skills will hold up.
While difficult to grasp, these changes are all beyond our control—the only thing that we have been able to control is how we’ve responded. Medical students across the US have responded with resilience. We have created innovative ways to assist responders and patients, adapted to the challenge of remote learning, and some are even prepared to graduate early to join the fight against coronavirus.
The resilience we have shown, to be sure, pales in comparison to that of the health care workers across the world risking their lives to battle this virus, head-on. But we are the future frontline responders. That’s why it is our duty to take their inspiration and use this opportunity to continue to learn, to grow, so that we can be ready. I am confident that despite this disruption we have faced, when I and my fellow medical students join the workforce as physicians, we will be ready. We will be more innovative, more adaptable, and more resilient than ever, and we will be fully prepared to care for our patients in the face of adversity.
J. Reed McGraw is a medical student.
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