COVID redefines curriculum for hospitalists-in-training


Transformational change

In a recent JAMA Viewpoint column, Catherine R. Lucey, MD, and S. Claiborne Johnston, MD, PhD,1 called the impact of COVID-19 “transformational,” in line with changes in medical curriculums recommended by the 2010 Global Independent Commission on Education of Health Professionals for the 21st Century,2 which asserted that the purpose of professional education is to improve the health of communities.

The authors stated that COVID-19 brought clarity and urgency to this purpose, and will someday be viewed as a catalyst for the needed transformation of medical education as medical schools embarked on curriculum redesign to embrace new competencies for current health challenges.

They suggested that medical students not only continued to learn during the COVID crisis “but in many circumstances, accelerated their attainment of the types of competencies that 21st century physicians must master.” Emerging competencies identified by Dr. Lucey and Dr. Johnston include:

  • Being able to address population and public health issues
  • Designing and continuously improving of the health care system
  • Incorporating data and technology in service to patient care, research, and education
  • Eliminating health care disparities and discrimination in medicine
  • Adapting the curriculum to current issues in real-time
  • Engaging in crisis communication and active change leadership

How is the curriculum changing? It’s still a work in progress. “After the disruptions of the spring and summer, schools are now trying to figure which of the changes should stay,” said Dr. Whelan. “The virus has also highlighted other crises, with social determinants of health and racial disparities becoming more front and center. In terms of content, medical educators are rethinking a lot of things – in a good way.”

Another important trend cast in sharper relief by the pandemic is a gradual evolution toward competency-based education and how to assess when someone is ready to be a doctor, Dr. Whelan said. “There’s been an accelerated consideration of how to be sure each student is competent to practice medicine.”3

Many practicing physicians and students were redeployed in the crisis, she said. Pediatric physicians were asked to take care of adult patients, and internists were drafted to work in the ICU. Hospitals quickly developed refresher courses and competency-based assessments to facilitate these redeployments. What can be learned from such on-the-fly assessments? What was needed to make a pediatrician, under the supervision of an internist, able to take good care of adult patients?

And does competency-based assessment point toward some kind of time-variable graduate medical education of the future – with graduation when the competencies are achieved, rather than just tethered to time- and case volume–based requirements? It seems Canada is moving in this direction, and COVID might catalyze a similar transformation in the United States.3

Changing the curriculum

Does the content of the curriculum for preparing future hospitalists need to change significantly? “My honest answer is yes and no,” Dr. Sankey said. “One thing we found in our training program is that it’s possible to become consumed by this pandemic. We need to educate residents about it, but future doctors still need to learn a lot of other things. Heart failure has not gone away.

“It’s okay to stick to the general curriculum, but with a wider variety of learning opportunities. Adding content sessions on population health, social determinants of health, race and bias, and equity is a start, but it’s by no means sufficient to give these topics the importance they deserve. We need to interpolate these subjects into sessions we’re already doing,” he said. “It is not enough to do a couple of lectures on diversity. We need to weave these concepts into the education we provide for residents every day.

“I think the pandemic has posed an opportunity to critically consider what’s the ideal teaching and learning environment. How can we make it better? Societal events around race have demonstrated essential areas for curricular development, and the pandemic had us primed and already thinking about how we educate future doctors – both in terms of medium and content,” he said.

Some medical schools started their new academic year in July; others put it off until September. Patient care at CCHMC is nearly back to where it used to be before COVID-19 began, Dr. Guiot said in a September interview, “but in masks and goggles.” As a result, hospitals are having to get creative all over again to accommodate medical students.

“I am amazed at the camaraderie of hospitals and medical schools, trying to support our learners in the midst of the pandemic,” she said. “I learned that we can be more adaptive than I ever imagined. We were all nervous about the risks, but we learned how to support each other and still provide excellent care in the midst of the pandemic. We’re forever changed. We also learned how to present didactics on Zoom, but that was the easy part.”


1. Lucey CR, Johnston SC. The transformational effects of COVID-19 on medical education. JAMA. 2020;324(11):1033-4.

2. Bhutta ZA et al. Education of health professionals for the 21st century: A global independent Commission. Lancet. 2010 Apr 3;375(9721):1137-8.

3. Goldhamer MEJ et al. Can COVID catalyze an educational transformation? Competency-based advancement in a crisis. N Engl J Med. 2020;383:1003-5.


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