When the pandemic struck, the whole world shifted, including medical schools. While some businesses slowed down, educational facilities set out to craft new and innovative ways of functioning—mainly out of sheer necessity. A silver lining of the virus is that it helped pave the way for new methods, restructuring how we train our future doctors. While the impact of virus has resulted in adversities for many, the premedical community still has a steadfast desire to enter the field of medicine.
COVID-19’s disruption pushed antiquated equipment out—due to old hardware's inability to function properly for remote workers and teams—and brought in more cloud-based software. The pandemic also gave universities the freedom to experiment with new models of education.
A Focus on Public Health
Shelter-in-place orders, created and honored by multiple public health organizations, restricted educational facilities from conducting classes in person. There was not much time to prepare but schools acted swiftly by shifting classes to remote learning platforms.
Traditional medical training focuses on what you do to bring the best evidence-based care to the patient you're treating whereas public health is centered on what you do to bring the best evidence-based approaches to support the overall health of the community. The pandemic interwove these two focuses together in ways unlike any other moment in time, reminding the healthcare community that no one works alone. It shined a spotlight on medical professionals working as a team with the emphasis on the collaboration of nurses, doctors, public health experts, policy experts, specialists, and more. This team effort is now being modeled more in early stages of medical education as deans have discussed how students re-enter the clinical area and how their clinical education will be impacted in the future.
The past year also helped schools identify some opportunities where they could develop more inter-professional educational activities. The pandemic tightened partnerships between healthcare delivery systems and public health professionals, resetting the notion of what it means to alleviate suffering and improve the health of our communities. Some medical schools have established new electives, allowing students the opportunity to engage with the public health response, with learners also serving as evidence-based ambassadors for the public. Other electives like contact tracing helped students learn more about transmission while supporting the local community health response. Students were coached on how to report factual information about the virus and produce evidence reviews for clinical teams and health leaders.
Changing Traditional Curriculum to Real-Time Issues
The pandemic highlighted the fact that medicine and medical knowledge are dynamic and can unfold at lightning speed. It became a hands-on learning experience for all and emphasized a collective appreciation of how expert knowledge is needed for physicians of all types in key concepts of human biology, sociology, systems science, and psychology. Information on the virus was being discovered almost as quickly as it was being spread, with professors and medical professionals sharing their findings through a variety of mediums such as online lectures, medical journals, news coverage, videos, podcasts, and more.
While the pandemic presented an opportunity to refine the medical school application process, it's also altered when students are "ready" to enter the "real world" of practicing medicine. In certain cities where COVID-19 ran rampant, medical schools were asked by the state to graduate their fourth-year students ahead of schedule in hopes to bolster the healthcare workforce.
The past year also placed substantial restrictions on clinical learning experiences, a much-needed experience for students. Plus, given the personal protective equipment shortage and early uncertainly about how it was transmitted, schools were rightfully reluctant to engage students in the care of patients suffering from the virus. Additionally muddying the waters was the drastic decline of patients seeking care for non-COVID-19 related issues such as heart problems and cancer treatment, leaving less patients seeking care overall.
Telemedicine surged in use but had limited opportunities for supervising medical students to participate. Virtual learning was utilized across all fields, but for surgical residents, some were still able to be included in surgeries. For example, a general surgery training program used remote technology to do beside rounds, while another center used telemedicine meetings to follow-up after trauma surgery.
Altering Residency Selections
While COVID-19 ushered in an onslaught of patients to the hospital, it also sent learners home from teaching faculties. Because of safety issues, rotations for students were not an option, especially away rotations. Moving forward, experts will question whether this legacy practice will be reinstated after examining who it truly benefits: the programs or the students?
Additional Changes Still in Progress
With sheltering-in-place in effect for several months, the pandemic shut down in-person science courses and laboratories while nixing shadowing opportunities. We don't yet know the impact of these alterations on the next generation of residents and surgeons. Deadlines for schools changed and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) testing cycle shifted; there were even temporary changes to the actual exams. At one point, all testing centers across the nation were shut down during the peak of the COVID-19 spread. In response to social distancing requirements and cancelations of exams, the Association of American Medical Colleges opted to reformat the MCAT by shortening its length. The release of test results was sped up from the usual four weeks to two instead, allowing students a competitive advantage for applying early during the application cycle.
Article Originally Published on ACOG Career Connection