Guest Editorial

Med Students Find Creative Ways to Help During Pandemic

April 09, 2020 10:30 am Chase Mussard

It seems so ironic now. During the last week of February, I leaned over to my spouse one evening and said, "I'm really worried that we are going to be too busy this spring and won't enjoy our last few months in Johnson City."

[students doing covid testing]

Austin Witt and Iulia Basaraba, both students in Quillen Medical College at East Tennessee State University, help direct patient traffic flow at the first drive-through community testing site in Tennessee. Neither student performed swabbing or sample retrieval.

At that time, our spring schedule was completely packed with the residency Match, graduation, conference travel related to my national leadership position, vacation and buying a new home across the country.

Like much of the world, though, our social calendar was wiped clean in a matter of days in March. That seems like an eternity ago, as my life -- and the lives of my fellow medical students -- have been uprooted and not yet replanted. As I write this, medical students are plagued with uncertainty about our daily lives, training, testing and -- maybe most deeply impacting -- our role in the COVID-19 pandemic.

My fellow fourth-year students and I lost the opportunity to celebrate with the typical fanfare related to Match Day and graduation. It has been hard on my family, knowing that even though we're here for a few more months, we won't get to enjoy our remaining time in Tennessee with them or with friends at places we've grown to love.

But others are affected even more, without a guaranteed job, income or health insurance. Although I have felt blessed with extra time at home with our 6-month-old and the certainty of knowing I'll start my family medicine residency this summer, I know many others are balancing caring for and teaching their children with attempting to do their own jobs from home -- at least those who have the option to work from home. Everyone is facing so many unknowns.

As a fourth-year, I have avoided most of the deep impacts to my own medical education that those in earlier years are now confronted with. With no clear path forward, second-years' national board exams have been canceled. (Can we please expedite pass/fail scoring of United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 to this year instead of 2022?)

Third-years have been pulled from core clerkship rotations,(www.aamc.org) with timelines for their return up in the air and no idea if away rotations will be possible.

Preclinical students have had their entire coursework shifted online, further propagating isolation.

My fellow fourth-years and I are now hearing that we may be asked to graduate early and step into the workforce earlier than the infamous July 1 residency start date, but no one understands when or how or what they'll need to do to be ready, let alone be safe. The questions exponentially outweigh the answers.

For medical students and many others, this experience is nothing short of a generation-defining moment. We will forever be known as the COVID-19 trainees. For many students, this has been as an opportunity to display our true calling to the field of medicine. Despite initially being viewed as "nonessential" as hospitals prepare for the storm, we have collectively found the energy to do amazing things.

Trying to leverage what I do have control over, I'm working with my team of national student leaders to help family medicine interest groups across the country capture and spread these efforts. On March 23, our national Family Medicine Interest Group Network leadership team put out a statement of support to medical students across the country,(1 page PDF) encouraging them and also asking them to let us know how they have been filling needs in their communities. Here are a few of the amazing stories that have inspired us so far:

  • University of Southern California medical students in the school's primary care leadership group are making phone calls to older adults who are under lock down in nursing homes, keeping them company and sharing resources they might need.
  • University of Minnesota medical students are organizing child care for health care workers on the front lines.
  • East Tennessee State University students are helping run COVID-19 screening stations.
  • University of Pittsburgh students are volunteering to deliver medications to patients who are in high-risk categories.
  • Georgetown University students created personal protective equipment drives for health care facilities that are facing shortages.

Wherever there has been a need, medical students have been rallying to fill it, often using Slack, GroupMe, or social media hashtags like #MedSupplyDrive to organize. But none of this work is easy or without risk. In a time when PPE is at a minimum, some students have found themselves in difficult predicaments and have been coerced into working in high-risk situations with promises of "improved" Medical Student Performance Evaluation letters from deans. I've heard from a few students that haven't even been given a choice and are being told they won't graduate if they don't work in these high-risk situations. Some schools were quicker to pull students from clinical experiences than others (I was pulled from a clinical rotation, but it was only a two-week relaxed elective), leaving students in the latter group with intense anxiety about their presence in the clinical settings, an emotion I personally battled in my circumstances.

The message for me has been clear: Students are dealing with a range of emotions and experiences they never could have dreamed of when they started. As I adjust to the new reality of my relatively isolated life, I keep coming back to the word "unprecedented" as the most accurate descriptor for this time in our world. But even during this pandemic, I am filled with pride to be a medical student. We will remember this. Our patients will remember this. And I'm confident that our generation of future physicians will push our health care systems to a level that is, well … unprecedented.

Chase Mussard is a fourth-year medical student at East Tennessee State University's Quillen College of Medicine and the national coordinator of the AAFP's Family Medicine Interest Group network.