More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and with social distancing measures in full swing, virtually every facet of life in America has been affected, with medical education being no exception. Medical students have been forced to reschedule USMLE/COMLEX board exams and cancel entire rotations. Residents have been re-deployed to work in COVID-19 ICUs. And of course, the annual residency application and recruitment season have been thrown into total disarray. AAMC has delayed the Electronic Residency Application System (ERAS) deadline by more than a full month to October 21, and most specialties have published guidance encouraging programs to minimize or cancel away rotation opportunities and transition residency interviews to a 100 percent-virtual format through the likes of Zoom or Skype. While these changes will certainly help to reduce the transmission of COVID-19, the loss of rotation opportunities and in-person interview day experiences means that residency applicants will miss out on the ability to sample or experience in person the unique cultures of different residency programs and hospitals.
Naturally, then, the tech-savvy Millennial applicants of today will be forced to rely heavily, if not exclusively, on the primary sources they first used to research what residency programs to apply to – the official websites and social media channels maintained by the programs themselves. These electronic resources seem to run the gamut when it comes to design and informativeness. At the very least, most programs seem to have a basic web presence consisting of a few informational pages on a subsection of the main hospital website devoted to graduate medical education. Often, these subsites contain little more than the name of the program director, perhaps a listing of current residents, and some cookie-cutter corporate prose about the hospital system, application process, salary, and benefits, while being completely devoid of any interesting or differentiating details specific to a particular residency program. An increasing number of programs are opting to invest in a separate, custom website that more effectively showcases the strengths and unique culture of their program for prospective applicants. These expanded sites might include a personalized message from the program director, an up-to-date photo listing of faculty and residents with accompanying biographies and hobbies, curriculum details, information for medical students, and even some information about life and activities in the surrounding city or region. As a supplement, many programs also choose to maintain a social media presence in the form of a Facebook page, Instagram, or Twitter account.
While perennially popular residency programs by virtue of their reputation and/or trendy big-city location may be less worried about the impact of COVID on the upcoming fall application and recruitment season, smaller and less-known programs are under more pressure this year to advertise themselves online and sell their program to prospective residency candidates. While the aforementioned solution of having a basic presence on a larger hospital/institutional website is always an option, these tend to be less flexible, staid in appearance, and difficult to update quickly thanks to corporate red tape. Thankfully, it is 2020, and the commodification of web development has made it easy to bootstrap an attractive website with a custom domain name for minimal investment in time and cost, thanks to template-based, drag-and-drop website builders such as Squarespace, Strikingly, and Wix. Programs with access to dedicated web development talent through their sponsoring institution or a tech-savvy resident may even opt for a more sophisticated, self-hosted site built on a content management system such as WordPress or Wagtail. Social media accounts on all mainstream platforms are free and relatively easy to set up. With regard to Twitter, engaging with #MedTwitter seems to be especially in vogue, given the seemingly high number of individual medical students, residents, and attending physicians on the platform. Of course, making sure that social media profiles are active and regularly updated with new and interesting content is important – it is not a good look when the residency’s last post was made years ago.
Perhaps one wrinkle to consider is that some institutions have media policies in place that essentially make it impossible for their constituent residency programs to independently cultivate and develop their own online presence. In the author’s opinion, such policies are antiquated and out-of-touch with the realities of residency recruitment and modern marketing, especially in the era of COVID-19 and the virtualization of interview season. For better or for worse, having a sleek, informative website and online presence may be a major factor for an applicant who has to choose between Program A and Program B but has the ability to visit neither this year due to COVID-19. Why not embrace and invest in a modern communication medium that can be used to attract potential applicants and differentiate one residency program from the next?
Kevin Zhang is an emergency medicine resident.
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