The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into the medical education landscape across the entire health care spectrum, disrupting the plans of medical students, residents, fellows, and program directors.
As cases of COVID-19 spread across the United States in early 2020, it became clear to training program directors that immediate action was required to meet the needs of medical learners. The challenges were unlike those surrounding the Ebola virus in 2014, “where we could more easily prevent students and trainees from exposure due to the fact that there were simply not significant numbers of cases in the United States,” Tiffany Murano, MD, said at a Society for Critical Care virtual meeting: COVID-19: What’s Next. Dr. Murano is professor of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, Newark, and president-elect of the Council of Residency Directors in Emergency Medicine. “COVID was a completely different scenario. We quickly realized that not only was personal protective equipment in short supply, but we also lacked the testing and tracking capabilities for potential exposures. Medical students and other supportive workers who were considered nonessential were removed from the clinical setting. This was after a trial of limiting who the students saw, essentially dampening the risk of exposure. But this proved to be flawed as COVID patients presented with symptoms that were unexpected.”
To complicate matters, she continued, many medical clinics either shut down, had limited access, or converted to telemedicine. Elective surgeries were canceled. This led to an overall pause in clinical medical student rotations and no direct patient care activities. As social distancing mandates were instituted, licensing examination testing centers were closed, and exams and on-campus activities were postponed.
Limiting trainee exposure
On the graduate medical education front, some training programs attempted to limit exposure of their trainees to persons under investigation for COVID-19. “As the number of COVID cases grew and encompassed most of what we were seeing in the hospital, it was obvious that residents had to play a vital part in the care of these patients,” said Dr. Murano, who is also a member of the American Council of Graduate Medical Education’s emergency review and recognition committee. “However, there was a consensus among all of the specialties that the procedures that posed the highest risk of exposure would be limited to the most senior or experienced trainees or professionals, and closely supervised by the faculty.”
ACGME activities such as accreditation site visits, clinical environment learning reviews, self-study, and resident and faculty surveys were suspended, postponed, or modified in some way, she said. The ACGME created stages of COVID status to guide sponsoring institutions to suspend learning curricula in order for patients to be cared for. Stage 1 was business as usual, “so there was no significant impact on patient care,” Dr. Murano said. “Stage 2 was increased but manageable clinical demand, while stage 3 was pandemic emergency status, where there were extraordinary circumstances where the clinical demand was so high and strenuous that the routine patient care and education really needed to be reconfigured in order to care for the patients.”