Every employee in hospitals around the world is bracing themselves for the torrential influx of COVID-19 patients that will overrun their wards. This is on top of pre-existing patients and those who will present for various other reasons. New and makeshift hospitals are being built on the fly and the world is quietly watching, unsure of how much worse the situation will become. But no matter how many beds we vacate for COVID-19 patients and how many resources we attain to fend against the virus, there is only a finite amount of health workers that exist in the world. Doctors and nurses are not created overnight, nor can they be magically 3D-printed for such purposes. Retired doctors are already volunteering to come back into the workforce so the question arises, how much good can us medical students do?
Now I know this is quite a polarising topic and before anyone jumps into a heated argument let’s take a look at what is already happening in medical schools. Italy is undoubtedly the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, with the death toll now surpassing 10,000 and the healthcare system buckling under the pressure to continue providing adequate care. The graduation of up to 10,000 medical students across the country is set to be fast-tracked, a few months ahead of schedule, to help their struggling colleagues. Similarly, in the UK, plans have been finalised to utilise alternative assessment methods to ensure final year medical students can join the fight and help the NHS cope. But what’s happening here, in Australia?
As far as I am concerned, there are no current plans to fast-track final-year medical students to join the workforce as doctors. Phew, everyone breathe a deep sigh of relief. There will be opportunities to attain employment within hospitals to help out in various roles, but at the moment it appears very unlikely that we will graduate early and receive our registration to practise as physicians. Our medical schools are committed to shaping competent, confident graduates and unless necessary do not want us working without the proper training and orientation. But that does not mean it is entirely outside the realm of possibility, and we should all understand that if the situation becomes dire here and there is no other option, you may find yourself being treated by a doctor who hadn’t anticipated working until 2021. Whilst it definitely would not an ideal situation for anyone involved, I hope that we may all approach such a scenario with respect and empathy for others.
So try not to be like a particular person I saw commenting on a Facebook post. In what I could only describe as an angry tirade against innocent students who only want to help, someone commented a long passage on the injustice and heinous crime in allowing “unqualified doctors,” to work. I cannot remember the exact working, but the message was clear. Do not fast-track senior medical students even if it was the last thing you did. Hey, I get it. Who doesn’t want to be treated by an experienced, wise doctor who has been in the business for years? Hell, even I don’t think I’d choose to be treated by myself if there was anyone else more qualified available.
But the problem is there is no one else available. We would never be drafted into the workforce unless there was a desperate demand for more people. The question is no longer who you would like to be treated by, but whether or not you will be seen at all. If the choice was between being seen by someone who would have gotten their degree in a few months anyways (and has all of the skills required to triage you), or turned away to go home, what would your decision be?
And it’s not like they’re unleashing a pack of wild wolves into the hospitals. Whilst I cannot speak on behalf of all medical schools, at The University of Melbourne we have finished all of our clinical placements by the end of our penultimate year. The only thing that stands between us and graduation is a six-month program helping us transition into clinical practise, and a registration exam (that is supposedly quite easy to pass). The first six months of our final year is dedicated to research, and whilst we may be deconditioned and in need of some revision and training before being good interns, we are more knowledgeable than the general population and I’d like to think can bring something to the table. So don’t go immediately disqualifying us from the conversation and dismissing us as useless.
I’m also not sure what everyone is imagining, but we would not just be handed a badge and allowed to roam around freely, medicating people willy-nilly before disappearing in a puff of smoke to avoid accountability. Interns usually have more of an administrative role anyways, so very rarely are they required to make significant decisions without the support and supervision of their superiors. Every medical team is not only interdisciplinary, but also has a hierarchy so that the less experienced can learn from their consultants. If we were brought in to work, there would be appropriate training and supervision to ensure we are neither a hindrance nor a liability. Think about it, why would hospitals make things even more difficult and chaotic? Roles and responsibilities would be adapted so that we are not pressured to do anything we are uncomfortable with, and are not pushed into the frontline without the relevant skills and abilities. We are just as scared as you are, and would never want to be in the way or cause harm to anyone.
And finally, understand that we would not be doing it for our own sake. The risk as a healthcare professional in this climate should be very clear to everyone and trust me, it is not a blessing to be graduating early. We are not salivating at the prospect of getting our hands on that piece of paper a measly few months ahead of schedule, but rather are willing to join the fight against this virus that threatens to consume the world. Whilst I cannot say it is altruism that would be motivating me (because I selfishly value my own life and am terrified of exposing myself or my family to anything that could be harmful), there is a sense of duty and obligation that binds us all. Just because we are students does not mean our efforts are devoid of any self-sacrifice and by flippantly degrading us as “useless,” and “unqualified” diminishes and overshadows our good intentions to help. I am not asking for praise or admiration, but some respect and re-evaluating your outraged outbursts might be a good start.
And FYI, you will likely see quite a few us in and around hospitals in the months to come. They are already recruiting medical students for various roles, such as participating in fever clinics and helping swab collections and contact tracing. Our entire medical school (excluding one who apparently doesn’t read emails) have signed up to be involved in whatever capacity we can. For your sake and mine, I hope that the day never comes where we’d be asked to step up and become doctors. Because we all know what that means and how much the hospitals and staff would be suffering. But once again, if it does happen we will be trying our best and hoping to make a positive impact. I understand and am sorry if it is a little anxiety-inducing to think that you may be treated by one of us, but I promise we will do what we can to ensure everyone receives the best care possible. Pinky promise.
P.S. I hope you are all safe and trying to stay sane at home, take care of yourselves 🙂