Pandemic restrictions ignite innovative pivot for psychiatry


As medical school faculty members – and our students – know well, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to become creative and shift much of our curricula online. Many hospitals chose to limit medical student rotations because of safety concerns. Students fell victim to canceled psychiatry rotations and electives during the pandemic’s early days. Privacy issues, combined with stigma tied to mental illness, made this shift to virtual instruction particularly challenging. But as a field, we persevered! And, as we learned during our shift toward telemedicine, many of the changes we made in medical education are probably here to stay.

Dr. Liat Jarkon, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, Old Westbury, N.Y.

Dr. Liat Jarkon

Our team at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) was able to implement a novel curriculum that allowed our students to learn psychiatry and maintain high-quality medical school education.

We developed an online course for third-year students’ rotation in psychiatry, with several modules that focused on a variety of psychiatric topics and disorders, including the basic classifications and categories of depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and psychotic disorders. There were also video encounters available showing actual patient encounters. On completion of the online module, a faculty session was held to discuss topics of concern/confusion to the students, areas of interest, and a variety of related topics, such as professionalism in psychiatry, essentials of the mental status exam, management of diverse populations, and COVID repercussions in psychiatry.

For fourth-year students, we developed a telemedicine psychiatry elective, which allowed the students to observe psychiatric evaluations, psychiatric medication review visits, and even follow-up psychotherapy sessions, with the school’s clinical psychologists. The new method was minimally invasive, and it was accepted by patients and welcomed by the students.

During a time when hospitals were limiting onsite student rotations and discouraging patient contact, medical students still needed to experience patient interactions. As the director of the school’s Center for Behavioral Health, I designed an additional program that allowed students to participate in observing patients who presented with psychiatric complaints and symptoms. It had to be confidential in nature, accessible, and safe.

I recalled my own training in a hospital setting, where students and residents were allowed to observe a patient being evaluated by an attending, through a one-way mirror. It was a method that was acceptable at the time in a hospital, but unfortunately, not in a private office setting. As such, students and residents experienced such an interaction in acute inpatient and/or outpatient clinics of a hospital. The experience was invaluable.

I started to envision a one-way mirror, 2.0, so to speak, for the current times. The concept was simple, yet very efficient. The clinicians in the Center for Behavioral Health were seeing all patients with psychiatric needs via a HIPAA-compliant telemedicine platform. Access was granted for students – with the patient’s consent – and they “entered the session” without being seen or heard. This presented little to no distraction to the patient, and the student was able to observe a range of clinical sessions.

The course also provided online supplemental modules, including essential psychiatric topics, psychopharmacology, and a psychotherapeutic module that discussed a myriad of therapeutic interventions. In addition, the student was supervised weekly by the course director, the psychopharmacologist, and the clinical psychologist. The course director provided daily wrap-up reviews as well.

Originally, this new approach was envisioned as a temporary solution for use during the pandemic. But it has become clear that this approach would be beneficial post pandemic as well. Most of the students who participated in the course were actually interested in pursuing psychiatry as their future specialty. It allowed them to observe a population of patients firsthand that they might encounter in private practice, as opposed to only hospital settings.

Being present in a session with a patient with psychiatric symptoms and diagnoses has always been a challenge. Many patients refuse to have another medical professional in the room because of the intimate details being discussed and their associated stigma. The patients’ inability to see or hear the student during the sessions allows them to ignore the students’ presence – or at least not be intimidated by it. This, therefore, allows the students access and affords them a unique and memorable educational experience.

The pandemic curtailed and altered medical students’ traditional exposure to patients, but we found innovative ways to redefine it. As difficult as COVID-19 has been for the health care community, we have been able to use the restrictions forced by the pandemic to identify innovative ways to improve the education of our medical students.

In addition to serving as director of the Center for Behavioral Health at NYITCOM in Old Westbury, N.Y., Dr. Jarkon is assistant professor in the department of family medicine. She has no disclosures.

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