Photo by Andrew Bowen
The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted all levels of education from preschools to universities, as classes are canceled or transitioned online. But the disruption to the education of medical students has presented unique challenges — and some new opportunities.
For 10 days now, students in the UC San Diego School of Medicine have been barred from participating in clinical rotations, the hands-on practical training in which they shadow doctors and interact with patients face-to-face.
Some students felt the decision was overdue. Other medical schools in the United States had canceled rotations much earlier, given the evidence that COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, can be spread even when the infected person shows no symptoms.
“We may carry the disease and spread that both to our clinical teams, to our families when we return home and also to other patients,” said Milli Desai, who is entering her fourth year of med school at UCSD. “So there was a lot of concern about, ‘are we needed in the clinical space, and what’s the best space for us to contribute?'”
The bulk of a med student’s third and fourth years is spent on rotations, and it’s unclear how students will make up for lost time once things get back to normal.
As of now, though, the changes have meant future doctors in San Diego suddenly have a lot of free time. And many of them are finding ways to volunteer in support of a health care system that is being stretched to its limits.
For Desai, that volunteering has taken the shape of sewing cotton surgical masks with her mother, Shobna, using patterns they found online. The masks are not suitable for doctors or nurses, but can be used by sick or elderly people if they have to go to the doctor or grocery store.
Meanwhile, third-year med student Armando Gallegos, Jr. has organized a donation drive for the so-called “personal protective equipment” (PPE) — surgical and N95 masks, gowns, goggles and gloves — that is increasingly in short supply in hospitals. He and some classmates have collected hundreds of pieces of PPE this week.
“I definitely wanted to do something as a student physician and try to help combat the pandemic in any way possible,” Gallegos said. “And I thought this was definitely one of the ways we could help our physicians in San Diego.”
UCSD med students will continue to collect personal protective equipment from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. March 27-29 at the following locations:
• Hillcrest Trader Joe’s parking lot, 1090 W University Ave.
• Del Mar Highlands Town Center, 12925 El Camino Real
Other medical students have started helping with “phone triage” — surveying patients by phone to help doctors decide whether an in-person visit is necessary. They are also preparing patients for telehealth visits and helping doctors write patient discharge orders.
School closures have also left doctors and nurses with children in urgent need of child care. Caitlin Breen, who is about to start her residency at Rady Children’s Hospital, has stepped into that void by taking care of the two daughters of a doctor she previously worked with at her clinic in Carlsbad.
“From any level of the health care system, from your urgent care visit to your last line ICU, everyone is all hands on deck right now,” Breen said. “And the kids are at home, so there’s obviously that need where there hasn’t really been before.”
Breen and some classmates helped develop an online portal to match med student volunteers with health care workers who need help with childcare, grocery runs or other errands. The match system was approved by UCSD administrators on Tuesday.
Beyond their actual volunteer work, med students can use their knowledge to support the messaging of public health officials, Breen said.
“Even at my stage of training, I’m able to provide more of an informative role to friends and family,” she said. “I’ve really tried to adopt that role and embrace it and pass out the message of … why social isolation and all these things that we’re doing can actually make a difference.”
Of course, med students are facing their own challenges, too. Milli Desai is five months pregnant, and her husband is a resident neurosurgeon who continues to see patients. Given his higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus, and the threat of the disease complicating her pregnancy, the couple decided she should move in with her parents in Los Angeles.
Desai said that separation is tough and the pandemic has made it a terrifying time to be entering a career in medicine.
“It really reaffirms our decision to go into health care to serve patients that really are the most vulnerable,” Desai said. “The scary thing I think is just how unprepared our whole system is for things that can happen like this.”
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