Is now the right time?

The number of people entering US medical schools is up this year. However, the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has led many of these aspiring doctors to wonder whether this really is the best time to start a medical career. In one sense, the pandemic has brought home the realities (and responsibilities) of being a medical professional during a global health crisis. For inexperienced medical students, this can seem overwhelming, and maybe even a little scary. Others are more concerned about taking on large student debts during what is set to be a prolonged period of economic uncertainty.

At troubling times like this, students need to ask themselves why they wanted to become a doctor in the first place.  Geoffrey Young is the senior director of Student Affairs at the Association of American Medical Colleges. He believes the majority of aspiring Doctors will come up with the same answer. "Medical students, at their core, have a service orientation," said Geoffrey. "And a desire to have a positive impact on the environment around them. Being a doctor is not just a profession; it's a calling."

Be the change

COVID-19 shone a light upon many of society's inequalities. A person's access to quality healthcare and their socio-economic background can have a significant impact on the chances of contracting the virus. More importantly, they can also impact the person's ability to make a full recovery. Politicians, business leaders, and international organizations such as the World Economic Forum are coming together to make the post-COVID world a fairer and equitable place -- medical students are willing to play their part.

Catie Havemann is training to be an emergency medical (EM) physician. She asserts, "Perhaps this reflects my bias, as someone aspiring to EM, but I feel like this is going to inspire a lot of people. Particularly people who know things could have gone better, need to go better, and want to work on making that possible." Zarin Rahman, a first-year med student at the University of Minnesota Medical School, expresses similar sentiments. "I think that the next generation of doctors (but also the next generation future anything!) tend to be enraged by the status quo. If they had an existing predisposition to medicine, they'd be even more enticed because of the opportunity for radical change," said Zarin.

Clinical placements during a pandemic

Clinical placements are an essential part of your medical school training. They are a chance to put some theory into practice, experience life in a hospital or clinic,  and start building some professional relationships. It's also an excellent opportunity to decide on your medical specialty. Unfortunately, many medical students are still waiting for their first taste of professional life. This is because hospitals are trying to limit the number of people coming in and out of hospitals. In the UK, hospitals are giving placement priority to medical students in their final years, ensuring they are ready to begin their careers following graduation. At the same time, early-year medical students receive extra practical training through online assessments, simulations, and role-playing exercises. The rapid adoption of digital healthcare technologies is also helping students get more experience while keeping themselves and others safe. These include remote consultations where medical students can observe a patient/doctor meeting.

Students are already stepping up

With crisis comes opportunity. In other words, difficult times are often a chance for people to show what they are really made of. In fact, they can inspire us to do great things that we never thought possible. Medical students have a long history of stepping up when needed. In 1918, many medical students graduated early to help fight the Spanish Flu pandemic. In 1965, Danish medical students provided polio patients with round the clock palliative care, while a number of doctors in training played an active role in controlling the aids outbreak during the 1980s.

Lawrence G. Smith, M.D., is the founding dean of the Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. He sees a direct parallel between these historical events and what his current crop of medical students are facing. He also believes the COVID-19 outbreak will make these medical students better doctors by encouraging them to embrace the human side of medical practice. "From my days as a trainee until quite recently, students were rewarded for how well they mastered their chosen field, not how kindly they spoke to the frightened person looking them in the eye," says Lawrence. "As today's students work at the bedsides of those with COVID-19, these new doctors will discover a skill too long ignored by most medical schools: empathy."

Lawrence isn't concerned about the baptism of fire for medical students and new doctors. Instead, he's optimistic. "As I watch my students rush into hospital wards well before the ordinary course of their training would have them do so, I find myself inspired by their dedication and eagerness. But also by the knowledge that as difficult as their path may be, they will emerge from it as better healers, which will benefit us all.”

Medical school applications rise amid the pandemic

Rather than scaring off medical students, recent events appear to have inspired more young people to take up medicine. The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU) has seen an 11% increase in applications since this time last year, while applications to Boston University's School of Medicine are up by 20%. "Students have really seen what healthcare workers are doing on the front line and have said, 'You know what, this is what I want to do," says Dr. Sahil Metha.

This is excellent news for the medical profession and a reassuring sign of some of the best of humanity. However, it does raise some challenges for pre-med students. With more people applying, there will be more competition for places, especially at the top schools. One tip is to start your application as early as possible. You should also think about applying for as many schools as you can; aspiring orthopedist Mary Grace-Kelly has applied for 15 medical schools in total. Other students are looking for that extra edge by enlisting the services of companies such as Med School Coach, a pre-med and med school application consultation service.

Being a medical student or new doctor amid a pandemic is definitely a steep learning curve. It will push you to the limits, forcing you to draw on reserves of energy and commitment you never knew you had. However, this is often when we grow the most as both professionals and people. So suit up, polish off your stethoscope, and embrace the challenge. It’s your turn to be a superhero!

Med school COVID