COVID-19 Transforms Medical Education: No 'Back to Normal'

Doug Brunk

October 20, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

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. 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 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," 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."

New Requirements to Manage Training

The ACGME also implemented four requirements to manage training that were consistent among institutions, regardless of their COVID stage status. These included making sure that trainees continued to be held to work-hour limit requirements, ensuring adequate resources for training, ensuring that all residents had the appropriate level of supervision at all times, and allowing fellows to function in the core specialty in which they completed their residency training. "This was only possible if the fellows were ABMS [American Board of Medical Specialties] or AOA [American Osteopathic Association] board-eligible, or certified in their core specialty," Murano said. "The fellows had to be appointed to the medical staff at the sponsoring institution, and their time spent on the core specialty service would be limited to 20% of their annual education time in any academic year."

Mindful that there may have been trainees who required a 2-week quarantine period following exposure or potential exposure to COVID-19, some specialty boards showed leniency in residency time required to sit for the written exam. "Testing centers were being forced to close to observe social distancing requirements and heed sanitation recommendations, so exams were either canceled or postponed," Murano said. "This posed a special concern for the board certification process, and those specialties with oral examinations had to make a heavy decision regarding whether or not they would allow these exams to take place. Naturally, travel among institutions was suspended or limited, or had quarantine requirements upon returning home from endemic areas. Conferences were either being canceled or converted to virtual formats."

Subani Chandra, MD, FCCP, of the division of pulmonary, allergy, and critical care medicine at Columbia University, New York, is the internal medicine residency program director and the associate vice-chair of education for the department of medicine, and she recognized the problem created for medical trainees by the changes necessitated by the pandemic.

"The variability in caseloads and clinical exposure has given thrust to the move toward competency-based assessments rather than number- or time-based criteria for determining proficiency and graduation," she wrote in an email interview. In addition, she noted the impact on medical meetings and the need to adapt. "Early on, before large regional and national conferences adapted to a virtual format, many were canceled altogether. Students, residents, and fellows expecting to have the opportunity to present their scholarly work were suddenly no longer able to do so. Understanding the importance of scholarly interaction, the virtual format of CHEST 2020 is designed with opportunities to present, interact with experts in the field, ask questions, network, and meet mentors."

No Return to "Normal"

By April 2020, cases in the northeast continued to rise, particularly in the New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut region. "These states were essentially shut down in order to contain spread of the virus," she said. "This was a real turning point because we realized that things were not going to return to 'normal' in the foreseeable future." With the clinical experience essentially halted for medical students during this time, some medical schools allowed their senior students who met requirements to graduate early. "There were a lot of mixed feelings about this, recognizing that PPE [personal protective equipment] was still in short supply in many areas," Murano said. "So, institutions took on these early graduates into roles in which they were not learners in particular, but rather medical workers. They were helping with informatics and technology, telehealth, virtual or telephone call follow-ups, and other tasks like this. There was a movement to virtual learning for the preclinical undergraduate learners, so classes were now online, recorded, or livestreamed."

Early Graduation, Matching, and Residencies

On April 3, the ACGME released a statement regarding graduating students early and appointing them early to the clinical learning environment. "They pointed out that institutions that were in emergency pandemic status lacked the ability to offer the comprehensive orientation and training in PPE and direct supervision required for new residents at the start of their residency," Murano said. "Their opinion maintained that graduating medical students matriculate in their previously matched program, the National Resident Match Program start date, or other date that would be nationally determined to be the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year."

As May 2020 rolled around, the overriding feeling was uncertainty regarding when, if, and how medical schools were going to open in the early summer and fall. "There was also uncertainty about how graduating medical students were going to function in their new role as residents," she said. "Same for the graduating residents. There were some who had signed contracts for jobs months before, and had them rescinded, and physicians were being furloughed due to financial hardships that institutions faced. There was also postponement of board certification exams, so people were uncertain about when they would become board certified."

July 2020 ushered in what Murano characterized as "a whole new level of stress." For medical students in particular, "we were entering the application season for residency positions," she said. "Due to travel restrictions placed by various states and institutions, away rotations were limited or nonexistent. Application release dates through the Electronic Residency Application Service were moved to later in the year. The United States Medical Licensing Examination clinical skills exam was suspended, and there were modifications made for Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates requirements. Letters of recommendation were also going to be limited, so there had to be some degree of leniency within specialties to take a more holistic approach to review of applications for residencies."

On the graduate medical education front, the ACGME sunsetted the initial stages and created two categories: nonemergency, which was formerly stages 1 and 2, and emergency, which was formerly stage 3. "All emergency stages are applied for and granted at 1-month intervals," Murano said. Board certification exams were modified to accommodate either later exams or online formats, and specialties with oral examinations faced the task of potentially creating virtual oral exams.

Despite the challenges, Chandra has seen medical training programs respond with new ideas. "The flexibility and agile adaptability of the entire educational enterprise has been remarkable. The inherent uncertainty in a very dynamic and changing learning environment can be challenging. Recognizing this, many programs are creating additional ways to support the mental, emotional, physical, and financial health of students, residents, and fellows and all health care workers. The importance of this innovative response cannot be overstated."

New Learning Formats

The pandemic forced Murano and other medical educators to consider unorthodox learning formats, and virtual learning took center stage. "Residency programs had shared national livestream conferences and grand rounds, and there were virtual curricula made for medical students as well as virtual simulation," she said. "Telemedicine and telehealth really became important parts of education as well, as this may have been the only face-to-face contact that students and residents had with patients who had non–COVID-related complaints."

To level the playing field for medical residents during this unprecedented time, a work group of the Coalition for Physician Accountability developed a set of recommendations that include limiting the number of letters of recommendation accepted, limiting the number of away rotations, and allowing alternative or less conventional letters of recommendation. "Keeping an open mind and taking a more holistic approach to applicants has really been needed during this time," Murano said. "Virtual interview days have been agreed upon for all specialties. They're safer, and they allow for students to virtually meet faculty and residents from distant programs that in the past would have been a deterrent due to distance and travel costs. This is not without its own downside, as it's difficult to determine how well a student will fit into a program without [him or her] actually visiting the institution."

Chandra agreed that virtual interviews are necessary but have inherent limitations. However, "we will all learn a lot, and very likely the future process will blend the benefits of both virtual and in-person interviews."

"We Need to Keep Moving Forward"

Murano concluded her presentation by noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunities for growth and innovation in medical education, "so we need to keep moving forward. I've heard many say that they can't wait for things to go back to normal. But I think it's important to go ahead to new and better ways of learning. We're now thinking outside of the typical education model and are embracing technology and alternative means of education. We don't know yet if this education is better, worse, or equivalent to traditional methods, but that will be determined and studied in months and years to come, so we're certainly looking to the future."

Murano and Chandra reported having no financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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