Responding to medical students’ concerns and anxieties during these unprecedented times

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Everyone is in the same situation across the country in these unprecedented times.

What a statement. A statement that every medical student has undoubtedly heard in utter multitude during these times of virtual medical curricula in place of clinical curricula — of canceled steps, levels, CKs, PE, and CS. It has no doubt been challenging on everyone, with some feeling stripped of their opportunity to help and serve their mentors and future colleagues, and others thankful to be safe from the dangers of fighting this pandemic with limited personal protective equipment (PPE). While I am fortunate enough to be involved in student leadership and response projects, which help address my own passions and reluctance to be helpless, I have been hearing concerns and feelings of administrators and students alike regarding the use of blanket statements similar to the one above. Although designed to be helpful, they are not fulfilling their purpose. Therefore, I wanted to address the issue with blanket statements from the perspective of a student.

Everyone else in the country is working with this too.

While students wait at home, our clinical skills growing cold, my own stethoscope gathering dust, I think about the futures that will be irrevocably damaged by these times. I think about the sweeping statements like the first of this micro-soapbox of an essay, and I cannot help but feel angered by that statement. I have received confusion as to why this statement, which should inevitably put us at ease, seems to perform just the opposite, and upset students. It is offered as a solution when a student voices their concerns and anxieties to faculty, mentors, administrators, etc., but in my perspective of an upcoming fourth-year student, it is very clear why this statement causes anger.

Everyone is in the same boat. Something has to give.

I should not need to point out the obvious, but everyone is NOT in the same situation – whether due to socioeconomic, racial, gender, intersectional identity, financial, medical, academic, prior clinical experience, or networking influences that can affect the “standing and situation” a student is in while applying for residency or moving forward in their career – we are not all in the same situation. While there is a sincere and genuine attempt to calm students with this statement, what I have observed is the invalidation of the very real vulnerabilities, anxieties, and concerns students are now having over the potential effect this could have on our careers in medicine.

This is happening across the country. Every school is dealing with this.

I emphasize careers because this is our life’s work. We have poured literal blood, sweat, and tears into our education to build our future careers. We have delayed other life goals such as making a living wage, marriage, children, buying a home, etc. We know that this is affecting the country; we are aware that the future is unknown. We are aware that we are neurotic planners being asked not to plan, but to study for a moving target test date, and somehow pretend as if nothing will change and siege forward. We know that this next year will be filled with unknowns.  We know that people will be unavoidably impacted by these changes, some less severe than others, but some severely affected, nonetheless.

These are unprecedented times for everyone; program directors will have to take that into account.

What we ask is not to sweep these concerns under the rug with a blanket statement. Please do not discredit and invalidate the trepidation and fear of the quality of our training we receive right now, or of the opportunities we have lost. We know that there are not exact solutions immediately available, and we know that everyone is doing their best to help us – for that we are grateful. However, do not forget that we are experiencing this too. We cannot continue hoping for the best and the equal playing field being promised to us (which never truly existed anyway) without trying to prepare for the worst. All we ask is for some understanding and truth, even if it burns a little. If you are still reading this and may be in a position where a student expresses their concerns to you, I wanted to offer my opinion and suggestion:

I hear what you are saying, and I am sorry, this really sucks.

I say that not in sarcasm, but in empathy. Let us call this situation what it is – a sucky situation. I said it. I named it. I validated it in all its sucky glory. We do not need an answer to all our problems – we are adults, and we know not all answers exist right now. However, for those students who reach out — we need some empathy, some note that our fears are not invalid, and that we will all continue forward together, acknowledging the unknown as it comes, and calling this situation what it is by name.

A sucky situation.

Kali Chiriboga is a medical student.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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