How Coronavirus Will Change Medical Schools

By Vikram Savkar, vice president and general manager of the medical segment, Wolters Kluwer’s Health Learning, Research, and Practice business.

Vikram Savkar

The COVID-19 crisis has placed a burden upon every aspect of our society. But nowhere is the burden more immediate and urgent than across the hospital sector. As the number of patients requiring critical care in a short period of time grows into the hundreds of thousands and perhaps beyond, clinicians are confronted with the mission of handling a challenge whose scale far exceeds our standing capacity.

The medical community is rising to that challenge with personal heroism. Every city and town has stories of clinicians who are prepared to work around the clock, despite having inadequate supplies and a high possibility of contracting the very disease that they are treating. If there was ever a time when the average person took their community’s medical infrastructure for granted, that time has now passed.

We will always, those of us who are living through this period, remember the many healthcare professionals and first responders providing COVID-19 care who “ran toward the fire,” as the saying goes, when the rest of us did our part and remained locked away from it. I am hopeful that we will come through this crisis stronger, as the many lessons learned from this pandemic are addressed by health systems, hospitals, and governments.

And in fact the disruptions of COVID-19 at present extend even beyond our hospitals  to every other aspect of the medical world as well, including medical schools. Some of these disruptions are temporary, some long-lasting.

Since my company, Wolters Kluwer, works closely with most of the medical schools in the U.S. as well as in many global markets through our digital and textbook solutions, and we are in daily touch with most of them to help them navigate through this turbulence, we have insight into what these changes may be.

Beyond the Rotation

Most medical schools in the country have closed their physical campuses and sent their students home early. For first and second year medical students (M1s and M2s), their classes have suddenly been moved online. For third and fourth year medical students, their remaining rotations, through which they develop hands-on mastery of patient care in a range of specialties, have been postponed or cancelled.

What is filling the breach for these medical students is heartwarming.  Across the country, students are organizing to find ways to support their counterparts in the active hospital community in any way they can during the COVID-19 crisis.

In many cases, first, second, and third year medical students are finding that they can best support doctors and nurses by participating in background research, handling childcare, providing administrative and clerical help, and so on, activities that have taken on a life-and-death significance at a time when every hour that doctors and other practitioners must spend outside of the ICU could result in COVID-19 fatalities.

In the US, many states, including Massachusetts and New York, have altered licensure standards so that fourth year medical students can become officially licensed doctors now, rather than at the end of the academic year.

While these new physicians will likely not be on the front lines of care for Covid-19, they will be instrumental in caring for patients in other areas of specialization, as clinicians from those areas are redirected by their hospitals to urgent Covid-19 treatment.

An Evolving Curriculum

Some of these developments (such as early licensure) will likely last only as long as the Covid-19 crisis. But the sudden transition of the core medical school curriculum to fully online mode of delivery during this period of disruption will likely have long-term consequences. Faculty and students alike are discovering during this disruption that online medical education can be surprisingly effective.

Illustrated textbooks, quizzes and exams, medical board preparation, case studies and so on are all available through online tools (such as this one), and in many cases these tools have capabilities that extend well beyond those of traditional textbooks.

Through digital tools, for instance, instructors can identify students who are falling behind and need extra practice, or leverage adaptive learning technologies to help high-performing students delve more deeply into special topics than the typical class syllabus allows.

Even anatomy classes – which one might suppose could not possibly be virtualized – are being transitioned rapidly during the disruption to robust visualization digital tools, such as this. (To be clear, as our contribution to the community during this time of crisis, Wolters Kluwer is making our digital learning resources, including the two I reference here, available to medical schools for the remainder of the academic year at no cost.)

When this disruption has passed and students return to their classrooms, I believe that medical schools will have experienced too well the benefits of digital learning tools to put them aside. It’s likely that, in the wake of COVID-19, medical schools will accelerate their commitment to “blended learning,” a balanced integration of digital learning tools into the classroom experience.

The benefit of the traditional classroom approach (direct interaction between students and professors, collaborative learning in peer groups) are timeless. But equally, the power of digital tools (personalization, self-guided learning) will be compelling to schools whose high sense of mission leads them to continually search for educational innovation. The blended learning approach of the future will combine the best of what is traditional with the best of what is new.

Looking Ahead

There may be other shifts in medical schools as a result of coronavirus beyond those that I have discussed here.  Will medical school enrollments rise significantly as young people today are inspired by the selfless way in which doctors are guiding us through this crisis? Will medical schools invest in webcasting solutions so as to be prepared for future disruptions? Will greater numbers of medical students pursue epidemiology, public health, or public policy in the future?

These question are difficult to answer now. But I believe that many of these changes will come to pass. It’s likely that medical schools will look back some day on this period of disruption as a moment when their approach to education changed in meaningful and lasting ways.

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