How the Pandemic Affected Medical Students

April 25, 2022


Although the pandemic has not officially ended, coronavirus has dropped below 45,000 new cases per day. This means Americans have a chance to move COVID-19 from pandemic to endemic status. That will signify that the infectious disease is still around but should not cause significant disruption to daily life. Although there is not a set threshold that dictates when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will mark the end of one phase and signify the beginning of a new era, there are specific benchmarks that will need to be met. Instead of preventing all transmissions, the CDC guidelines will aim to minimize severe illness while preventing a daily case situation that could overwhelm our healthcare systems. Nonetheless, the virus isn’t going away and endemicity is certainly expected to require a shift in mindset as to how the pandemic affected medical students.

“For now, the virus is going to be part of our human environment,” remarked the CEO & Founder of WolfPacc Physicians Achievement Concept Course, Dr. Hans Wolf. “Fortunately medical schools adapted quickly and changed how student education was being delivered.” Whereas the pandemic affected medical students in clinical phases due to limited hands-on opportunities, curriculum changes and other substitutes were enacted to bridge the gap for the loss of in-person learning. Lectures were delivered in remote formats and many medical schools altered training modules and implemented virtualized patient encounters to simulate what a student would normally experience. After all, the future of the nation’s healthcare systems rests with today’s medical students joining tomorrow’s workforce.

Medical Students Had to Embrace Remote Interactions

Many budding students were caught part way through the process of taking the Medical College Admission Test, and due to the chaos, may not have been far enough along to complete all aspects of a traditional application portfolio. Looking at normal metrics for a medical school applicant like putting in volunteer hours, it is obvious that some things were simply hard to come by after the onset of COVID. In addition, even though medical school admissions officers are cognizant of numerous impediments, not every test taker even took the same version of the MCAT as a shortened format was offered to accommodate interrupted testing windows. Furthermore, the move to online learning could have had an inverse affect on grades, so according to the American Medical Association, many admissions officials now say lower MCAT scores and GPAs should not dissuade potential students from applying.

Most first year medical students who were forced to interview virtually received an introduction to medicine through remote lectures. Moreover, the pandemic affected medical students at all levels due to restricted interaction with faculty members, which often led to feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression. However, most students quickly realized that if they weren’t in the game, they didn’t have a chance to live the dream of becoming a doctor. Medicine has long been a career that is highly rewarding but very challenging, and the initial years of medical school have always been just that. Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted education for U.S. and international medical students, it is impossible to tell if career-related interruptions will continue to manifest. Most experts agree that a combination of enhanced coursework and professional support could be key to aiding this generation of doctors.

Completing Preclinical Skills Was Immediately Threatened

Due to the shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment), many third and fourth year medical students had to be removed from programs in clinics and hospitals. Moreover, the clinical faculty at most healthcare facilities were forced to redirect their efforts to help with the rapid influx of sick patients and were unable to dedicate time for educating students. Accrediting bodies expressed concern that this generation of aspiring doctors may not have fully developed the necessary skills during their preclinical or clinical phase. But, as the pandemic wore on, medical schools sought to rectify the lack of hands-on experiences by implementing in-person physical exam labs. Still, these activities required educators and medical students to mitigate risks by social distancing and wearing of N95 masks and face shields.

As the world learned to cope with deadly SARS virus, medical schools and healthcare institutions cautiously allowed students back in the classroom as well as clinical settings. Nonetheless, students trained over the past few years have had a far different experience than their predecessors. Many students seeking admittance to residency programs or trying to complete their rotations may have missed out on learning from in-person instructors and interacting with other students. Fortunately, there were many things gained from the quick adaptation of virtual curricula, including the use of case simulations to develop clinical and technical skills working with standardized patients. It is still unknown as to how the pandemic will impact the National Residency Matching Program, but a recent national survey suggested approximately 20% of students felt the pandemic would affect their choice of medical specialty.

What the Endemic Future Looks Like for Students

The pandemic could end this year but the impact of COVID-19 on medical school education has been significant, and some students struggled to make the transition. Although a few were able to take advantage of assisting in hospitals by joining frontline workers once PPE was more readily available, others were more directly impacted by the loss of opportunities for preclinical and clinical studies. Whereas an endemic relationship with a disease does allow for a stable coexistence, endemicity is not 100% certain until the viral transmission of the disease has stopped due to the number of people who are immune. Nonetheless, the trauma of the pandemic has taught medical students and the world valuable lessons about a sudden outbreak of a novel disease.

Although it is too soon to know how the pandemic affected medical students of this generation, certainly they will have lived through one of the most unique healthcare experiences the world has ever encountered.

“We all look forward to COVID fading into the background of everyday life,” added Dr. Wolf. “At WolfPacc, we offer educational programs year-round to help students apply what they learned in medical school. Our training goes well beyond preparation for USMLE or COMLEX exams and focuses on helping students make a successful transition in becoming a confident physician.” Only time will tell how the pandemic has impacted medical students both in the immediate and the future. But many students already feel the experience has shaped the way they view medicine and how professional care can affect the well-being of patients in practice as well as when they are hospitalized for extended treatment. For certain, this challenged generation understands that no one can know with certainty what is on the horizon, and that as a doctor, he or she must be prepared to quickly apply newly acquired knowledge and skills in caring for their patients.

Photo credit Cedric Fauntleroy