Near the end of the second week of my first dermatology rotation, I got the email I suspected was coming. The subject line said it all: “Temporary Suspension of Medical Student Clinical Rotations.”
At first, it was only for two weeks. I thought I could use the time to do more research on the specialty.
But now it may be months before medical students can safely go back into the hospital.
I had been hearing about COVID-19 for weeks on the TV, snippets here and there as I studied for my Step 1 board exam while my dad watched the news. It seemed too distant to divert my attention from exam prep. Soon enough, that changed.
In suspending clinical rotations, our school had taken the responsible and appropriate action. Our presence in the hospital could have promoted viral transmission while aggravating the severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). But administrators have kept us updated on ways to remain productive and support front-line healthcare worker. This has been crucial in helping us acclimate to a new reality, where classes and rotations are being offered virtually and board exams are being cancelled.
But I still felt like there was more than I could do. Seeking guidance, I reached out to Dr. Misha Rosenbach. His advice: use this time to learn, not to take a vacation. Medical students across Philadelphia have been yearning for ways to support the fight against this virus. While some argue that students should stay home to prevent viral spread, others are pushing for students to be graduated early to help.
Many of us were involved in community clinics, which provide basic health care. Suspending this service has stranded patients who have the least access to telehealth services, which have largely replaced traditional medical visits.
Face-to-face contact is not permitted for now, but we are finding other ways to pitch in. Charlotte Tisch, a first-year at Penn, is among students coordinating efforts to collect PPE from businesses and art museums. Others, like Eden Engel-Rebitzer at Penn, have organized programs to purchase groceries for medical residents working long hours at the hospitals.
Wanting to share ideas like these and learn from similar initiatives at other schools, I started a Facebook group for students in healthcare-related fields, the Philadelphia Organization for Health Professions Students (POHPS), which has since garnered nearly 2,000 members, and we also are on Twitter. Our efforts have included collecting and publicizing funds or grants for which members of the general public can apply if they need help managing financial, legal, or social struggles during this crisis. Led by Stephanie Javier-Fagbemi from Temple and Terry Gao from Thomas Jefferson, we are also coordinating city-wide PPE identification and collection.
Being at the intersection of the medical community and the general public, we are also uniquely poised to serve as intermediaries between the medical world and the rest of our community—translating and communicating the latest knowledge about COVID-19 and highlighting the needs of those combating it in the hospital that members of the public can help to address. In addition to the grocery program, Eden Engel-Rabitzer also has worked with Casey Kim, another medical student from Penn, to consolidate the best set of COVID-related infographics and websites to share with the public through social media. That’s just part of our group’s overall goals.
I’m not sure when I’ll be back in the hospital. At this point, I’m not sure anyone at any school in the area has a reasonable guess. But for now, I, along with the incredibly thoughtful, professional, and creative student leaders I’ve met through POHPS, will continue what we had been doing in the hospitals and classrooms: learning what it means to be part of a team to serve our community and alleviate the many types of burdens they may face.
Ramie Fathy is a medical student in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Contact him @RamieFathy or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed in this article do not represent those of the University of Pennsylvania Health System or the Perelman School of Medicine, nor do they represent those of any of the institutions or programs at which POHPS members are enrolled.