Surviving Medical School In a Global Pandemic

The landscape of medicine has changed drastically amidst the occurrence of the novelty Coronavirus pandemic. Arguably, one of the most drastic changes has been the impact of the virus on the healthcare system. It seems as if the world needs new doctors now more than ever. It can be both a blessing and a curse to experience the pandemic first hand from a student-doctor perspective. You may consider this a great learning opportunity, but there have also been many changes that can hinder the process. Let’s discuss some challenges you may experience during medical school in a global pandemic, and how to mitigate them.



Virtual Learning 


The first, and most obvious change, that many medical students have been faced with, is the transition to virtual learning. In March of 2020, almost every medical school was forced to shut down in-person learning for the majority of the year. This change blind-sided many students that have already established their preferred educational tactics. The daily flow of the learning process was temporarily disrupted and students needed to adapt quickly. Although it has been well over a year since this initial shutdown, students are still struggling to augment their routines. Virtual learning has become the ideal platform for future doctors to maintain their studies in a safer environment. Here’s a few tips to help maintain routine with virtual learning:

  • Set a daily study schedule
  • Form student accountability groups
  • Sign up for additional tutoring sessions
  • Set attainable weekly study goals
  • Change your environment if possible

Prometric Testing 


Prior to the pandemic, most medical schools offered their in-house or NBME exams on campus. Due to the school shut down, this posed a serious issue regarding how students were going to take their official semester exams and the CBSE. Some schools chose to offer these exams via online platforms, reducing delays in testing. However, other schools chose to offer exams at prometric sites with designated testing windows. Due to the temporary closure of many prometric sites at the heat of the pandemic, this caused a massive backup on exam date availability.

Although it has been a year since these closures, many sites are still experiencing backups due to a higher volume of prometric tests needed to meet the demand. It’s highly recommended to schedule these exams as soon as you are given authorization by your school. Be aware that depending on where you are located, you may also need to prepare to travel an unknown distance to a farther prometric site.


Clinical Rotations 


As we’ve already talked about, the need for additional health care workers has increased tremendously due to the virus. For this reason, it would seem reasonable to think that hospitals and clinics would be increasing the number of students allowed in facilities. However, due to the shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) and the high rates of viral spreading in densely populated areas, this is not the case. In fact, many facilities suspended the rotations of medical students to help reduce overpopulation of the clinical setting and decrease the spread of the virus. In addition to this, some schools and facilities set policies that were meant to prevent medical students from being exposed to Covid.


Prior to the dissemination of the Covid vaccines, the risk of student transmission out-weighed the benefits of the extra hands in the clinical setting. As a result, some students were delayed from completing their clinical core rotations, and others were given options to do electives online. Although most clinical sites have transitioned back to in-person clinical rotations now, there still remains several policies. These policies may limit the number of students allowed to rotate at a time, the patients in which they are allowed to see, and may require proof of vaccination against Covid-19.


Tips For Clinical Rotations

  • Ensure to always wear your PPE to reduce your risk of contracting or spreading the virus
  • Obtain a negative test in advance to prevent delays waiting for the results
  • Network with other students to help determine what clinical sites are accepting students
  • If your institution does not allow you to interact with covid positive patients: Engage in a learning discussion with your preceptor about what they do to manage covid symptoms, in order to be adequately informed for future patients

Delays and Changes


As we have already discussed, a lot of the post-pandemic differences in the medical school process can be very disrupting and also cause delays. One of the most challenging things to deal with as a medical student is struggling to maintain your original timeline. You should try to fill in any unintentional gaps in your timeline to prevent this from negatively affecting your future residency application. Here are a few suggestions to make the most out of potential delays:

  • Utilize this extra time to take a dedicated USMLE prep course
  • Engage in additional volunteer and shadowing experiences
  • Find research opportunities to pad your resume
  • Ensure all documentation and upcoming deadlines are met with plenty of extra time
  • Maintain your routine/continue reviewing material to prevent falling behind
  • Take time for self care! After all, it’s not very often that you’ll get time off during medical school!

Travel and Restrictions 


As I’m sure most of you have already experienced, there have been increased restrictions and red tape regarding travel. Some countries and states require proof of vaccination against Covid-19 and/or proof of a negative PCR test. Depending on the type of COVID test you require, you may need to plan ahead by at least 72 hours to receive your results in time for travel. In addition to this, flights and airlines have been hit and miss regarding their flight schedules and occupancies. There has been a huge increase in flight changes and cancellations due to the pandemic.


If you need to travel for any reasons during your medical school program, it is highly recommended that you plan to arrive several days in advance to avoid a travel mishap. Although many institutions are aware of these added obstacles, it’s best you don’t take any chances or risk missing an important exam or rotation. Check out your country’s embassy rules regarding travel during COVID-19 to ensure you’ll be fully prepared with what to expect.


Pandemic Burnout 


At this point, a year and a half later, it’s safe to say we’re all feeling a little burnt out to some degree. Whether it be from a family or friend’s illness, your own, or the added stress on your daily life. It’s okay to recognize and acknowledge the effects this has had on your mental health. Understandably so, the members of the healthcare team that you are working with are likely feeling this burnout as well. It’s so important to consider how your co-workers, colleagues and patients are being affected by this. A few great ways to reduce burnout and help to gain a sense of normalcy in your daily life includes:

  • Set up facetime or zoom calls with friends, colleagues or relatives
  • Go out on a safe weekly outing to prevent isolation
  • Check in on your friends and colleagues to ask how they’re doing
  • Debrief with your healthcare team when you experience a challenging Covid case

Doing Your Part 


With all of that said and done, it’s vital that we remember our role as healthcare professionals. As a future doctor, many people, including your patients and the public, look up to you for medical advice. Try to set a good example as a healthcare professional by following the Covid protocols set by your institution or facility. Avoid engaging in politically affiliated or heated arguments regarding the virus to maintain your professionalism. Stay informed as best as you can with the current protocols and updates as the pandemic continues to evolve. AND most importantly, protect your own safety during the pandemic to help keep your patients and your community safe.




Medical school can already be so challenging as it is, and adding a global pandemic does not make it easier. But as future doctors, this hardship will help to shape you into the amazing physician you are meant to be! If you’d like to receive extra support during these tough learning times, you can visit our MATCH page to check out tutoring and mentoring opportunities. As your Companions we will be with you every STEP of the way and we wish you all the BEST! Stay safe future Doctors!

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