Pandemic as opportunity
Although the price of medical education has yet to decrease, schools are working to leverage the pandemic to provide increased educational value.
This generation of physicians will not only have to cope with the fallout of this pandemic, they will be the ones responsible for confronting the next pandemic as well, says Donald Brady, MD, senior associate dean for health sciences education at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn. “They will be the leaders in the future who will better be able to know how to handle it [a pandemic] because they were able to watch it and be part of it safely in the current circumstance.”
As much as possible, Vanderbilt is using the pandemic as an opportunity. As soon as it became clear that students couldn’t be involved in certain hands-on training, instructors developed a course about pandemics that included lectures on ethics, global health, systemic racism, and other topics. It also included experiential components of pandemic management, such as opportunities to work with patients through telehealth.
Students say they feel that they are getting less for their money and that they are paying for experiences that are no longer available, such as hands-on patient contact and community events. However, Dr. Brady said, schools have had to account for new expenses, including various now-required technologies and transitioning to courses online.
Some challenges can’t be solved with money alone. Medical schools across the country are working together to ensure that they are still adequately preparing students. Vanderbilt participates in an AAMC group that meets regularly and is also one of 37 institutions involved in an American Medical Association Consortium (AACOM). These groups discuss challenges, strategies, and opportunities for optimizing medical education during the pandemic.
Some institutions have come up with creative solutions. Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, in Athens, Ohio, in collaboration with the Ohio Department of Health, launched a 4-week rotation for third-year students that focuses on public health. Harvard Medical School, Boston, was one of several schools that allowed students to graduate early in the spring. “We’re constantly talking to our colleagues and friends,” Dr. Brady said. “We learn from each other. There’s a lot of sharing going on.”
Other organizations are also working to make sure students ultimately get what they are paying for: a high-quality education. As soon as the pandemic began, the AACOM organized four working groups to address how schools could better use technology to deliver curricula and how students could participate in public health efforts, among other topics. “For the students, the part they don’t see and can’t really be aware of is all the things that happen behind the scenes,” Mr. Cain said. “People were working really hard to make sure that their education was still delivered, and delivered in a way that was going to assure a good product at the end.”
Ultimately, that product will be held to a rigid standard, said Geoffrey Young, the AAMC’s senior director for student affairs and programs. Medical schools must still meet standards of competency set by the liaison committee on medical education. Mr. Young says that even now those standards remain rigorous enough to ensure that medical students are learning what they need to know. “The core elements for competency may be slightly altered to address the realities that we’re experiencing because of COVID, but the core tenants of competencies will not change,” he said.
Even as conversations continue about what a medical education is worth, the pandemic is drawing new attention to the profession. No signs suggest that the value of tuition or a shift to more virtual offerings are scaring students away. Applications for medical schools were up 17% for the fall of 2021.
Brady expects the surge in interest to continue. “The increased focus and emphasis on public health, the increased focus and emphasis on health equity, the increased focus on the need for a more diverse physician workforce, the interest in basic science research around viruses, the interest in COVID itself – there are a lot of different elements that are setting us up for a potential boom in applications to medical school,” he said.
Beyond increasing interest, the pandemic may also finally force a reckoning on the disconnection between how schools think about costs and how students think about value, Dr. Asch said. “When students say: ‘I’m not getting as much from this,’ they’re saying, ‘you should price this according to its lower value.’ And when the medical schools are saying: ‘Oh, but it’s costing us so much more,’ they’re talking about pricing according to the cost. It’s like one group is speaking Latin and the other group is speaking Greek.” Perhaps, he said, COVID-related changes will finally get them speaking the same language.
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