In March 2020, the world began to shut down offices, businesses, and schools. The disruptions and fear caused by COVID-19 impacted everyone—across generations and international borders. Even life in New York, one of the planet’s most populous, illustrious cities, came to a grinding halt as it emerged as an epicenter with case numbers soaring. Suddenly, health care workers came to the forefront of the efforts to save thousands of lives.
One year later, our country and world remain in the grips of COVID outbreaks, even as vaccines have become available and more people are able to get vaccinated. Vaccines offer a glimmer of hope that we may resume something like ‘normal life’ at some point, but at this time, we are still very much living through a pandemic.
COVID’s impact on medical education
During these uncertain times, medical students feel an overwhelming sense of duty to support our health care system. We also understand the necessity of social distancing and changes to the medical school curriculum to protect ourselves and others. Still, many students also feel fear and anxiety about how the curriculum has changed.
For first- and second year students, most of their training involves spending hours poring over lectures, textbooks, slide decks, and notes. Students rely on working together to review the vast material needed to begin clinical training. Although every campus has operated differently, many have been intermittently closed throughout the pandemic, which has severely limited the collaborative nature of learning medicine.
For third-year students who spend the year in the clinical setting to gain critical hands-on experiences treating patients, they have been looking forward to this moment. The relationships they form during each rotation are critical to decisions about which specialty to pursue and where to apply for residency.
However, with hospitals and clinics limiting the number of people inside facilities, some found themselves void of rotations, while others faced more limited options for rotations.
For rising fourth years, the importance of audition rotations during the residency match process is paramount. However, with the current situation, making in-person connections and showcasing skills at desired hospitals has become more limited. Missing out on these experiences has the potential to impact students’ careers over the long term.
Last year’s DO graduates reported a median medical school debt of $275,000, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. This debt, coupled with concerns about them or their loved ones succumbing to COVID-19, inevitably leads to medical students who have been frustrated, stressed, and emotionally distraught.
How medical schools can help
Medical students are medicine’s future. Soon, they will be running emergency rooms and inpatient units. Thus, it is in everyone’s best interest for medical schools to allocate resources to bolster their students’ mental health.
This can include advertising the use of school therapists and psychiatrists more openly, matching students with advisors by their specialty interest, or implementing individualized feedback on wellbeing to promote mental health self-awareness.
Medical schools can show their support for students by converting grading scale systems to pass/fail systems, which would reduce students’ stress and lower student burnout rates. Institutions should also consider changing mandatory wellness meetings to optional.
Students should be able to decide whether they want to attend the meetings. To successfully propel students into the next phase of their journey, medical schools should support them and encourage them to move forward with optimism.
About the authors: Ravi Chinsky, OMS III, Ramya Pendyala, OMS II, and Matthew Collin, OMS IV, attend the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.