Journal of Health Policy & Opinions
What can Medical Students do in the Coronavirus Pandemic?
Triya Chakravorty BA(Oxon)
School of Clinical Medicine, University of Oxford, UK
Key words
Cite as: Chakravorty T. What can medical students do in a coronavirus pandemic. Sushruta
2020 (Mar)vol13(1):28-29 epub 14.03.20
situation. It will become even more unlikely if the
In the last two days, the World Health
situation in the UK escalates to the level reached
(WHO) have characterised the
in the Hubei province, where entire hospitals were
coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak as a pandemic1.
transformed into COVID-19 treatment facillites3.
This is not something to be taken lightly, and in a
time when the capacity of the National Health
Looking into the future, it will be difficult to
Service (NHS) will be tested, it is important to
completely halt medical education, as this will
consider what role medical students can play in
seriously impact the competence of the doctors
the crisis.
who will join the workforce in the future. That
being said, there are some alternative methods of
Should medical schools be closed?
clinical teaching which medical schools could
Pandemic outbreaks represent a unique challenge
consider. During the severe acute respiratory
to medical education. The closure of medical
(SARS) epidemic in
2003, several
schools or suspension of patient contact will of no
medical schools which had barred medical
doubt be disruptive to education; however, one
students from patient contact instead used web-
must consider the risks versus benefits of having
based learning and mannequin-based simulation
medical students on the wards. Some medical
training in order to minimise disruptions to
schools in the UK are already taking extreme
medical education4.
Given the recent
measures. For example, Cambridge University
improvements in technologies such as virtual
have cancelled their final year clinical
reality, it may become necessary to utilise this
examinations2. These examinations require face-
type of
“patient surrogates” further in the
to-face contacts with patients, so cancellation is
upcoming months.
understandable given the potential risks
Should medical students join the NHS workforce?
The UK’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty
As I write this article, my own institution, the
revealed in a statement earlier this month that the
University of Oxford, have announced that all
government is considering drafting medical
clinical teaching will be suspended until further
students into the workforce, as well as
notice, giving the reason that this will allow clinical
encouraging retired General Practitioners to
tutors to spend the majority of their time treating
return5,6. If necessary, final year medical students
patients. This seems inevitable as it is unlikely that
may be able to take on some of the roles of
medical students will be able to receive adequate
foundation year one doctors, in order to help
teaching from hospital staff in the current
shoulder the burden. In pervious health crises,
Chakravorty_t_medstudents v1
Journal of Health Policy & Opinions
similar actions have taken place. For example,
remember that medical schools have a
during the
1918 influenza pandemic, medical
responsibility to ensure that all healthcare
students in the United States of America were fast-
professionals (including students) are well-trained
tracked through medical school in order to
in the use of personal protective equipment and
increase the number of healthcare workers
have knowledge of infection control measures.
available to help on the front line7.
First year clinical medical students like myself are
faced with a unique dilemma. Our relatively
In the WHO pandemic response, the fourth and
limited clinical exposure and skills restricts our
final stage is “innovate and learn”. I believe there
ability to make a meaningful contribution on the
is much to be learnt about how to continue
wards. However, being a part of the healthcare
medical education in a health crisis. The whole
community and future members of the NHS front-
world will be playing catch up during the
line, I believe we do have a responsibility to
aftermath of the pandemic, and as medical
contribute where we can.
students, we will have to do the same. Learning
how to deliver care in a crisis will help us prepare
Although it is true that even observing ward
to for pandemics which may arise in the future, at
activities will provide us with valuable lessons, we
a time when we will make up the majority of the
must be practical when considering how the
presence of non-essential staff such as ourselves
may increase the risk of virus transmission in
Where to find the latest guidance about
hospitals and out in the community. Our reasons
for being on the wards would be purely for our
1. The Public Health England Website
own educational benefit, rather than for the
2. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
immediate care of patients. The General Medical
“Good Medical Practice” applies to
3. The University of Oxford Coronavirus
medical students as well as doctors. Within this
updates Page
document, it states that “the care of your patient
is your first concern”8. For first year clinical
students, this may mean refraining from the
WHO Director-General's opening remarks
wards, as the risks to patients’ health may not
at the media briefing on COVID-19 - 11
outweigh the benefits of continuing our clinical
March 2020,
education in this manner in the short term.
Medical students have a responsibility to act
sensibly and do what we can to minimise our own
19---11-march-2020 > (2020).
risk and risk to others in our networks. This
includes keeping well informed, maintaining good
hygiene, practicing social distancing and self-
s/1238085188573413377 > (2020).
isolating if necessary. In a time where fake news is
Qin, A. & Wee, S. ‘No Way Out’: In China,
rife, conveying clear messages to friends and
Coronavirus Takes Toll on Other Patients,
family online may also be a good idea. In terms of
volunteering, there are many non-patient facing
roles that medical students can be involved in.
cancer.html > (2020).
These include helping to run the NHS 111 hotline
Lim, E., Oh, V., Koh, D.-R. & Seet, R. The
and driving vans with ventilators to satellite
Challenges of "Continuing Medical
intensive care units. So if you would like to help,
Education" in a Pandemic Era. Annals of
then I recommend contacting your medical school
the Academy of Medicine, Singapore 38,
to ask what you can do. It is also important to
724-726 (2009).
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Journal of Health Policy & Opinions
Legraien, L. Government is considering
using medical students to help in
coronavirus outbreak,
coronavirus-outbreak/20040272.article >
Pearce, C. Government may call in retired
doctors to help deal with coronavirus
outbreak/20040233.article > (2020).
Starr, I. Influenza in 1918: recollections of
the epidemic in Philadelphia. 1976. Ann
Intern Med 145, 138-140,
200607180-00132 (2006).
General Medical Council: Good medical
practice, <https://www.gmc-
for-doctors/good-medical-practice >
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