Written by: Peter Minkoff
Coronavirus pandemic has hit us all, affecting every aspect of our lives. Many universities have switched to online-only for the entire 2020/21 academic year, requiring medical educators to rethink how they can continue delivering high-quality medical education at a time when medical schools are closing in-person teaching.
But the story doesn't end there. Although the move to online medical education has been logistically successful in some parts of the world, when it comes to developing necessary skills and confidence, simulations can hardly compete with real-life experiences.
In these circumstances, medical students also face unique challenges that can essentially affect their future careers.
So what are the most common challenges medical students face in 2020?
Inbetween safety and necessity
Currently, rising Covid-19 cases are mostly associated with younger people. It's a well-known fact that risk-taking peaks in young adulthood.
That's why shaming young for risky behaviors and building a prevention strategy on expectations that students won't go to parties and have sex is completely unrealistic and ineffective.
Furthermore, a US survey found that about a quarter of people aged 18-34, with symptomatic COVID-19, develop post-acute COVID, leading to severe complications.
Infections in students can also result in infections among vulnerable people, including faculty members, staff, and the wider community.
In these circumstances, medical students are caught between the added risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the clinical or university environment, and the definite necessity for some aspects of medical training to be delivered in person.
The truth is that contact with the patient contextualizes their theoretical knowledge and builds their professional identity.
How much medical students desire on-the-job experience can be seen because many volunteered during the pandemic and value this experience as part of their professional ethics and an opportunity for their professional and personal development.
On the other hand, for those medical practitioners and post-grad students, who have already built their professional identities while working with real patients, many online opportunities have arisen. They now have a chance to get needed certificates, despite the pandemics, from the comfort of their homes.
Vital PALS certification and recertification can now be completed online, granting the knowledge and skills to deal with critically ill children and infants, resulting in improved outcomes.
Out of Campus Challenges
Not all medical students' challenges that have arisen during the pandemics are educational. Some of them are, so to say, existential.
A recent UK study has shown that seven out of 10 medical students couldn't even afford necessities – such as food or heating, even before the pandemic. Students' limited earning potential has now decreased to the minimum because of the epidemic driven loss of part-time jobs.
Financial issues are already an identified risk to students' mental health. However, because of limited social interaction, there is an apparent lack of peer support networks, bringing this problem to a whole new level.
The likelihood of isolation and loneliness will probably remain a big challenge, even with the campuses reopened.
Lack of physical lectures and social distancing measures will make it hard for students to build relationships and find support, especially for those who've just enrolled, or international students who need to adapt to the new culture and new language.
In many states, medical students are generally not involved in the care of the patients during pandemics, and they have no choice but to stay at home full-time. And if the student is a parent, separating their student and private life can be challenging.
With many schools and nursery facilities being closed worldwide, the chances are high that their children are at home full-time too, so they have to manage somehow both the studying and nursing their young ones.
What can be done?
We still see no sign of the pandemic crisis resolving. While it lasts, it's on medical educators to move towards taking a more strategic view of using technology for medical education.
Course designs should be such that they ensure that students are not affected by the in-person restrictions.
Furthermore, volunteering with phone triage or virtual volunteer positions in remote researches can be an excellent way for medical exposure, keeping students engaged with their profession while giving back and supporting their communities.
On the other hand, it seems vital that medical students stay in the clinical environment as much as possible, to experience crucial face-to-face, patient-focused learning. Some professionals suggest that longitudinal placements and regular testing could allow medical students this possibility.