How well trained is the class of COVID-19?


During a family medicine rotation at Oregon Health & Sciences University, Portland, third-year medical students are preparing for a patient visit. Only, instead of entering a clinic room, students sit down at a computer. The patient they’re virtually examining – a 42-year-old male cattle rancher with knee problems – is an actor.

He asks for an MRI. A student explains that kneecap pain calls for rehab rather than a scan. The patient pushes back. “It would ease my mind,” he says. “I really need to make sure I can keep the ranch running.” The student must now try to digitally maintain rapport while explaining why imaging isn’t necessary.

When COVID-19 hit, telehealth training and remote learning became major parts of medical education, seemingly overnight. Since the start of the pandemic, students have contended with canceled classes, missed rotations, and revised training timelines, even as the demand for new doctors grows ever more pressing.

Institutions have been forced to rethink how to best establish solid, long-term foundations to ensure that young doctors are adequately trained. “They may find themselves the only doctors to be practicing in a small town,” said Stephen G. Post, PhD, bioethicist and professor at Stony Brook (N.Y.) University. “They have to be ready.”

With limited hands-on access to patients, students must learn in ways most never have before. Medical schools are now test-driving a mix of new and reimagined teaching strategies that aim to produce doctors who will enter medicine just as prepared as their more seasoned peers.

Hands-off education

Soon after starting her pediatrics rotation in March, recent Stanford (Calif.) University graduate Paloma Marin-Nevarez, MD, heard that children were being admitted to her hospital for evaluation to rule out COVID-19. Dr. Marin-Nevarez was assigned to help care for them but never physically met any – an approach called “virtual rounding.”

In virtual rounding, a provider typically goes in, examines a patient, and uses a portable device such as an iPad to send video or take notes about the encounter. Students or others in another room then give input on the patient’s care. “It was bizarre doing rounds on patients I had not met yet, discussing their treatment plans in one of the team rooms,” Dr. Marin-Nevarez said. “There was something very eerie about passing that particular unit that said: ‘Do not enter,’ and never being able to go inside.”

Within weeks, the Association of American Medical Colleges advised medical schools to suspend any activities – including clinical rotations – that involved direct student contact with patients, even those who weren’t COVID-19 positive.

Many schools hope to have students back and participating in some degree of patient care at non–COVID-19 hospital wards as early as July 1, said Michael Gisondi, MD, vice chair of education at Stanford’s department of emergency medicine. Returning students must now adapt to a restricted training environment, often while scrambling to make up training time. “This is uncharted territory for medical schools. Elective cases are down, surgical cases are down. That’s potentially going to decrease exposure to training opportunities.”

When students come back, lectures are still likely to remain on hold at most schools, replaced by Zoom conferences and virtual presentations. That’s not completely new: A trend away from large, traditional classes predated the pandemic. In a 2017-2018 AAMC survey, one in four second-year medical students said they almost never went to in-person lectures. COVID-19 has accelerated this shift.

For faculty who have long emphasized hands-on, in-person learning, the shift presents “a whole pedagogical issue – you don’t necessarily know how to adjust your practices to an online format,” Dr. Gisondi said. Instructors have to be even more flexible in order to engage students. “Every week I ask the students: ‘What’s working? What’s not working?’ ” Dr. Gisondi said about his online classes. “We have to solicit feedback.”

Changes to lectures are the easy part, says Elisabeth Fassas, a second-year student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Before the pandemic, she was taking a clinical medicine course that involved time in the hospital, something that helped link the academic with the practical. “You really get to see the stuff you’re learning being relevant: ‘Here’s a patient who has a cardiology problem,’ ” she said. “[Capturing] that piece of connection to what you’re working toward is going to be tricky, I think.”

Some students who graduated this past spring worry about that clinical time they lost. Many remain acutely conscious of specific knowledge gaps. “I did not get a ton of experience examining crying children or holding babies,” said Dr. Marin-Nevarez, who starts an emergency medicine residency this year. “I am going to have to be transparent with my future instructors and let them know I missed out because of the pandemic.”

Such knowledge gaps mean new doctors will have to make up ground, said Jeremiah Tao, MD, who trains ophthalmology residents at the University of California, Irvine. But Dr. Tao doesn’t see these setbacks as a major long-term problem. His residents are already starting to make up the patient hours they missed in the spring and are refining the skills that got short shrift earlier on. For eligibility, “most boards require a certain number of days of experience. But most of the message from our board is [that] they’re understanding, and they’re going to leave it to the program directors to declare someone competent.”

Robert Johnson, MD, dean of New Jersey Medical School, Newark, said short-term setbacks in training likely won’t translate into longer-term skill deficits. “What most schools have done is overprepare students. We’re sure they have acquired all the skills they need to practice.”


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