The last thing on the minds of medical students working towards graduating in 2020 was having their education interrupted by a worldwide pandemic.
When it became apparent in mid-March that multiple measures were needed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) College of Medicine transitioned its classroom instruction online. The UAMS College of Pharmacy, nursing schools and training programs for other health care professions in the state took similar actions.
The first two years of medical school are mostly classroom education.
Dr. James Graham, executive associate dean, UAMS College of Medicine, said the conversion to an online format had some challenges, but was not so difficult.
“For their third and fourth year, students are normally working in clinics or hospitals. Obviously, there are limits to what you can do when students can no longer learn clinical skills working with health care teams,” he said.
Not allowing students to graduate wasn’t an option because of the shortage of physicians in Arkansas, especially in rural parts of the state.
The medical school class was slated to graduate May 16.
“We realized quickly it was important that we finish their education program so they could graduate, go on to residency training and become part of the health care workforce in Arkansas and elsewhere,” Graham said.
One of the new training programs developed to meet current needs was a two-week online COVID-19 course. All junior and senior medical-school students took this course to prepare them to get back in the clinical setting.
“It was clear even back then that COVID-19 was going to be with us for a long time,” Graham said. “We wanted our students to become experts both in the science of COVID-19, the clinical care of patients and infection control in health care settings.”
One complicating issue was a shortage of personal protection equipment (PPE) early in the pandemic. That made it difficult to provide students with the PPE needed to do clinicals. But UAMS was able to graduate all 165 of its seniors, who experienced the college’s first-ever virtual graduation ceremony in mid-May.
In June, with adequate supplies of PPE available, medical students had been incorporated back into the clinical settings. Students are taught what type of PPE to use in different settings and how to properly use it. Graham said at UAMS, if someone is exposed, he or she is tested.
“As testing has become more available, it has been easier to test those exposures and prevent transmission,” Graham said. “By adjusting clinical training to meet educational objectives, the class of 2021 is expected to graduate on time.”
As of press time, nearly 600 healthcare workers in the United States have died from COVID-19. Some students expressed concerns about working with such a deadly virus. But none dropped out. Graham said that his students, in their online classroom module, asked most often what they could do to help. Students volunteered to drive to businesses with extra PPE to bring to hospitals and to work at call centers, talking to people concerned they might have the coronavirus.
“Most students realize this is probably the biggest health challenge that this generation is going to face,” Graham said.
But the pandemic has not doused the desire to become a health care worker. And the downturn in the economy could be a factor. Graham said it has been seen nationally that medical school applications go up when the economy is not doing well.
“People see health care as a stable career,” Graham said. “I anticipate we will have an increase in applications this fall.”
Baptist Health College in Little Rock has experienced increased interest in health professions because of the pandemic.
“We have been pleasantly surprised with our applicant pool for nursing this cycle,” said Chancellor Judy Pile, Ed.D., Baptist Health College Little Rock. “We had a healthier applicant pool than we have seen in several years.”
Pile said there could be a couple of reasons for the increased interest. One is that students have been inspired by the health care heroes providing top-quality care despite personal risks.
“Often in higher ed when you see a downturn in the economy and increased unemployment, there is more interest in non-traditional students returning to college,” Pile said. “Because we specialize in health care, this is especially true for Baptist Health College. A downturn is not good for the overall community, but it is usually a time for us to attract solid, second-career students.”
There are great job prospects for graduates. Pile said her graduates have opportunities for mobility and diversity in job roles.
“Our graduates are able to explore different specialties, locations and organizations,” she said. “They may work in a particular area of a hospital for a few years and then transition to something else. Particularly with some experience, their options are wide open.”
Baptist Health College in Little Rock had about 600 students on campus this past spring when the college announced it was moving all instruction online. With traditional clinical options unavailable because of the pandemic, the college transitioned to virtual options.
“There is good software out there for virtual simulation experiences, scenario-based clinical experiences,” Pile said. “We had not purchased them previously because of the opportunities for lots of face-to-face clinical experiences. It has been a very dynamic semester for us. All our students are scheduled to re-enter clinicals in July when classes start back. Baptist Health has always been a very good partner and is making every effort to get students back into clinicals. Students won’t take care of COVID patients, but they will be allowed to work with patients on other units.”
Traditional classroom instruction at the college has large class sizes that would make social distancing difficult. So, nursing instruction will remain online for lectures this summer and possibly in the fall as well.
Pile said they have a very diverse student and faculty population. Some have loved the transition to online while others have struggled.
“I think sometimes it is a learning style more than anything else,” Pile said. “Overall, everyone was glad for the opportunity to progress. I don’t think any of us thought it was perfect. There is a lot of potential with online, but making it happen overnight certainly comes with challenges. There is a lot of time involved in building a high-quality online instruction. We didn’t have that luxury.”
One thing they continue to ponder is what sort of impact the changes will have on registry and certification exams. It remains to be seen what employers might experience with new grads who are missing several months of clinical experience and patient care.
“We’re all going to be watching, I think,” Pile said.
James Graham: Just Wear the Masks
Wearing masks is accepted by medical professionals as a no-brainer but has been hotly debated by the general public, some of whom refuse to wear them.
“If the studies are right, universal masking works,” Graham said. “If I wear a mask, I might save someone’s life. If the studies are wrong, the worst thing is that I wore a mask to the grocery store. It is inconvenient, a little uncomfortable, but if I can save a life because I am asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, there is no downside to wearing a mask.”