March 4, 2021

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What to Do if Your Medical School Is Online This Fall Due to Coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis that highlights the importance of the medical profession. During a time such as this one, when a contagious disease has spread across the world and humanity is collectively searching for a vaccine or cure, future physicians may feel a sense of urgency and want to begin training immediately.

However, the fight against the coronavirus relies upon social distancing measures, posing a challenge to newly admitted medical students. The upcoming fall semester for first-year medical students might differ from what it would have been if the virus outbreak had not emerged, since some or all coursework may need to be completed virtually, according to medical education experts. For instance, this May, Harvard Medical School announced that its fall 2020 classes for first-year medical students would “commence remotely.”

[Read: What the Coronavirus Pandemic Means for Premed Students.]

Nevertheless, many experts say that so long as a medical school’s digital education system allows for meaningful interaction between students and professors, there is no pressing reason why admitted med students should defer for a year. The first semester of medical school focuses primarily on the basic sciences such as biochemistry and pathology. These subjects can be taught online, experts suggest, adding that deferral is not the right course of action for most students.

“I don’t think anyone should delay their dreams of going to med school because of this,” says Dr. Justin Shafa, a chief radiology resident at a hospital in New York who received his M.D. degree from George Washington University.

Shafa adds that the coronavirus pandemic has strengthened his desire to help others, and he imagines admitted med students might feel the same way he does. “If anything, you should be seeing what is happening with the coronavirus and be more willing to jump into your med school,” he says.

Shafa emphasizes that med schools are extraordinarily selective, so individuals who are granted the opportunity to become doctors should take advantage of it. “The world needs more doctors.”

Dr. Patricia Celan, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada, says it’s unclear when the coronavirus outbreak will end and cautions that many medical schools will only allow deferrals for a single year, if at all.

“The reason for deferral must typically be stated, and deferring because of a distaste for online coursework will likely be frowned upon and rejected,” Celan wrote in an email.

[Read: What a First-Year Medical School Student Can Expect.]

Nevertheless, Dr. Maggie Cadet, a rheumatologist, suggests that because of the coronavirus pandemic, students in certain circumstances could benefit from a gap year.

“This might be a good option if an individual does not do well with reading texts online or if they may not be organized and motivated unless they are physically present for classes,” Cadet wrote in an email. “That ‘gap year’ might be a time to volunteer, work in a health care office or facility, or do some research on a medical topic of interest.”

Though the infectiousness of coronavirus poses safety concerns that make it difficult to teach in-person classes, some medical schools have developed safety protocols that will enable them to offer in-person, small group lessons this fall. Those lessons will complement whatever virtual instruction the schools offer.

Dr. Stacey Pierce-Talsma, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine in Maine, says her school will teach all topics that can be taught effectively online via virtual instruction. The school will also provide in-person, hands-on training once a week.

A similar approach will be taken at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, according to Dr. Jennifer Christner, dean of the college’s school of medicine.

“We’re going to be doing a hybrid model, and what we mean by that is that most of our classes are going to be virtual or online,” Christner says. “But there are some classes where we are going to try to bring the students in in small groups, keeping safe distancing.”

Christner explains that in-person sessions will be reserved for a student’s real-life anatomy labs and doctoring lessons. Though a Baylor med student will be able to complete some of his or her anatomy and doctoring coursework online, he or she will need to do certain components on campus, Christner adds, noting that a student would likely come to campus “a couple” times a week.

Physical examination skills are difficult to convey through an online class, Christner says. “Really you just can’t learn that sort of thing unless you’re doing it on another human being and being observed doing it so that we can give feedback on what’s going right, what’s going wrong,” she says. “So they will be coming in still to work with some of our standardized patients, just like they always do, but in smaller doses.”

[Read: How Hard Is Medical School and What Is the Medical School Curriculum?]

Med school experts say that incoming medical students may need to be especially self-disciplined in order to get through virtual versions of first-semester medical school courses.

“To get the most out of your online courses, stick to a strict schedule even if you’re able to make your own schedule given the circumstances,” Celan suggests. “If you fall into haphazard learning patterns, you will not be as effective in your studying as you would with the same daily routine.”

Celan also recommends participating in a study group. “The major loss in taking medical school online would be missing out on the sense of community that you build while working together with your classmates — however, social media and video chat applications open up social opportunities even if you can only connect with your classmates online.”

Dr. Leann Poston, a medical contributor to Invigor Medical — a telemedicine service provider — urges incoming medical students to consider moving to the city of their medical school for the fall semester even if their fall courses are virtual, so that they can meet classmates.

Poston, a former assistant dean of admissions at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Ohio, notes that small gatherings are permitted in most places across the U.S.

“I think the worst choice would be to stay at home someplace, off by yourself, and try to do medical school by yourself.”

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