With Students Sidelined, Ohio State Medical School Develops New Coronavirus Course

Apr 17, 2020

On the third Friday every March, medical students around the country learn where they’ll spend their residency. But instead of a ballroom filled with hundreds of students and family members, this year, Ohio State Medical School dean James Rocco found himself in a mostly empty lecture hall, addressing students over the internet.

“Our Match Day 2020 has been modified by a new word in the international lexicon: social distancing,” Rocco told students tuned in to the livestream.

Instead of ripping into envelopes, students furiously refreshed their email inbox. Rocco apologized that they’ll miss out on a tradition spanning some 70 years.

“This will not be the first time that you are going to be asked to sacrifice in your profession as a physician,” Rocco said. “It is what makes us, in I my humble opinion, the most noble of professions and worthy of the esteem so many assign to us—welcome to the club.”

More than 50 of those rising students at Ohio State’s medical school are graduating early after the university’s Board of Trustees gave the go-ahead last week. Other schools around the country have taken similar steps.

Ten of Ohio State's early grads are sticking around for their residency, but all of them could soon be confronting some pretty grim realities. Meanwhile, teachers in the medical school don’t want to let the current crisis—and the lessons it could offer to a class of young doctors—go to waste.

“But because we want to preserve PPE, we want to keep our learners safe, about the first week of March we took them off clinical rotation,” says Ohio State emergency physician Dr. Nicholas Kman.

Kman oversees fourth-year medical students. While he recognizes concerns about safety and preserving limited personal protective equipment, or PPE, he admits it’s frustrating not being able to share this experience with his students.

“I really felt sad for the medical students that they were going to lose this opportunity to participate in the largest medical response to anything really since probably the 1918 influenza,” Kman explains.

So Kman and others in the department pulled together a new course for their outgoing students. In place of clinical visits, students will work at a coronavirus call center, helping patients understand symptoms and manage quarantine. They’ll also learn how to properly put on PPE for patient visits.

But more fundamentally, Kman wants students to understand that disaster response—whether it’s a storm, a terrorist attack, or COVID-19—requires a different mindset.

“What you start to think about is moving from a mode of taking care of the individual patient to taking care of the population as a whole," Kman says.

He offers testing as an example. Without mentioning President Trump by name, Kman brings up the president's assertion last month that anyone who wants a test will get one.

“Well if you do things that way, you run out of tests,” Kman explains. “You run out of the viral medium that the swab has to go into. So we have to think about we can’t test everybody. Let’s test our sickest patients, let’s test our health care workers to get them back out on the front line, let’s test vulnerable populations.”

Fourth-year medical student Dhriti Sooryakumar is one of the students taking the course. She describes how they’re working through a kind of response playbook by modeling the spread of an infectious disease.

“They’ve walked us through a decision making process at each point where they give us assignments to say, 'OK, at this point there’s no longer personal protective equipment in America, what would you do?'” she says. “Would you call on a national stockpile reserve? Would you start enforcing and mandating social distancing?”

Sooryakumar won’t be graduating early, but she notes many of her fellow students are eager to get to work.

“I heard one student who said they thought they might have had symptoms,” Sooryakumar says. “They didn’t officially test positive, but their attitude was really like, 'Hey, I might be immune now, send me out to the front lines, I want to go help how I can.'”

Kman sees similar urgency in his students. He says that, depending on where they’re headed, graduates will still have some licensing hoops to jump through, but he expects they’ll be suited up as quickly as they can.

The first disaster and pandemic response course is small—just a dozen fourth-year students on their way out the door. But once they’ve finished, the college is offering the course again.

Ohio State is also expanding enrollment to 200 and opening the door to third-year medical students, as well as students studying in the colleges of pharmacy and veterinary medicine.

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