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What COVID-19 Means for Medical Students

A post-it with stay home written on it for Medical students during COVID-19


Coronavirus is sweeping across the world, cities are shutting down, hospitals overflowing, the economy crashing, and suddenly your cranial nerve mnemonic feels like the last thing you should be focusing on. But while the world screeches to a halt, medical students are finding themselves in an unexpected limbo, somewhere between the front lines of healthcare and the shuttered campuses of colleges and universities. For medical students, COVID-19 means virtual classrooms, rotations pulled, Prometric test centers closed, match day celebrations cancelled, and an overwhelming amount of uncertainty.

So, let’s forget about the rest of it for a minute and talk about how to deal with coronavirus in medical school. 


The Fourth Year Medical Student:

Match day is moments away, and you’re rapidly painting a new picture of the day you imagined for years. In the time of COVID-19, you’ll be facetiming and skyping with friends and family while you click to refresh your browser instead of nervously tearing at envelopes. You’ll be matching into programs in the midst of a crisis who will, nonetheless, be thrilled to welcome you. 

Be patient with them and with yourself. Programs are working tirelessly to tackle the challenges their residents and departments are facing with coronavirus, but you’re not forgotten. Getting hospitals ready for a new crop of residents will be essential in the coming weeks. I know you’re feeling for your patients and want to be in the hospital right now, but relish in this well-deserved time to reflect and connect. You’ve worked hard as a medical student, and the best thing you can do right now for yourself and for your patients is social distance and be ready for July. 


The Step Studier:

For many of you medical students, Step 1 or 2 is right around the corner and if your test hasn’t yet been cancelled yet, it likely will be soon. With hundreds of Prometric test centers closed, Step studying medical students are overflowing with facts and mnemonics hoping they can hold on to them long enough to see their new test dates. Step studying has always been a marathon, but now you’re competing in an Ironman. There’s no doubt this is challenging, but let’s try to find the bright side.

If anyone is ready for COVID-19 quarantine, it’s you. You’ve shut yourself in your home for months already and adapted to this new normal. You also actually know what Coronavirus is from Sketchy Mirco (the king sneezing by the spiral castle)! But in all seriousness, you’ve also been employing evidence-based study techniques like spaced repetition, practice testing, and self-quizzing. You’ve committed these facts deep into your memory and for those that still feel flimsy, Coronavirus has given you the time and space needed to solidify them. Reach out to your tutor or study buddy, take a deep breath, plan a new more relaxed schedule and keep learning.


The Clinical Medical Student:

You’ve been pulled from the front lines of the Coronavirus crisis or likely will be soon. You’re well-slept for the first time in months, but you’re probably wondering “will I graduate on time?” These are unique times and you will need to be patient, but in all likelihood the answer is YES. 

I assure you; your administration is doing everything in their power to keep your training on track as they extend acceptance letters to a new crop of medical students. Know that medical education is flexible. While the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) has rotation requirements, schools can structure these in many ways, and often have institutional requirements that go beyond LCME mandates, which will be easier to adjust. Also, radical changes in medical education are not unprecedented. Accelerated medical school curricula were employed in America during WWII to address physician shortages. We could see the LCME become more flexible on requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic to keep up with the needs in healthcare.

While you’re home, your schools are likely working on providing remote learning opportunities to fill the gaps, you may even be trained on telemedicine, but now is also a great time to get ahead on USMLE Step studying or research to round out your residency application so you don’t fall behind. Think about treating quarantine as dedicated Step study time or convert your clinical rotations into research rotations that can be done remotely.

Lastly, for many clinical students, I know the last place you want to be is home (https://www.statnews.com/2020/03/14/medical-students-can-help-combat-covid-19/). You care deeply about your patients and your care teams, and you want to support them in every way possible. Know that the profession is grateful to have such dedicated future doctors, but also know that we need you safe so you can finish your training and join the fight. Resident rotations are being cancelled too, as we make an effort to right-size healthcare teams to avoid unnecessary exposure and keep a backup pool of healthy doctors. We may need you in the hospital soon, and so we need you home now. 


The Pre-Clinical Medical Student:

For those of you in class during COVID-19, now is the time for that remote curriculum your school always promised they had! Luckily most medical school curricula can be moved online, but it might be an awkward transition. Again, be patient, most of the learning in medical school takes place outside the classroom as is, but institutions will be sharing resources in the coming weeks and offering open source course materials as this crisis rolls on. If your school isn’t closed yet, it likely will be soon, ask your administration what they’re doing to prepare and offer to help. Coronavirus will be temporary, but the new remote curricula that develop out of this time will be long-lasting.


All Medical Students:

Many of you are scared right now, and many of you want to help, but you have to take care of yourself first. This is an overwhelming time for everyone, full of anxiety and uncertainty. Monitor your own mental health and that of your classmates and loved ones. Take advantage of your institution’s mental health services if you are feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or isolated. For those of you ready to jump into action, think creatively like these students from the University of Minnesota (https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/18/us/minnesota-students-babysitting-health-care-workers-coronavirus-trnd/index.html). There is a lot you can do to help without putting yourself at risk. The health implications of this crisis will be long-lasting and we will need you when you’re done with your training, if not sooner. Be kind to yourself and others, wash your hands, take deep breaths, and stay home.

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About the Author

Christopher Clayton Ed.M. M.D.

In 2013, Christopher Clayton graduated Magna Cum Laude from Duke University with a BS in Biology and BA in Spanish and Latin American Studies. Following…

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