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Managing Medical Education During the Pandemic

July 15, 2020

In an unprecedented time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the College of Medicine community came together to deliver virtual, socially distant medical education.

On March 20, Drexel officially closed its campuses to help prevent the spread of the pandemic. Community-based clinical study was suspended as well, but the disappointing turn of events gave faculty and third-year MD students a chance to explore topics that clinical experiences may not have covered.

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Initially, many third-year students were disappointed to pause their long-awaited clinical rotations.

"The work you do in the classroom doesn't really take in the part of a person who is in the hospital and... just need to hear, ‘You're going to be okay, we're going to do everything we can to get you the proper care,'" explained rising fourth-year MD student Edward Guo.

Still, Guo said there was a silver lining to the semester's change of plans.

"I've been focusing a lot on the positives of virtual education," he said. "I really just have to thank our deans, faculty and staff for making the best of this situation and allowing us to learn about topics we wouldn't normally get to cover in clinical."

Guo and his classmates studied varied medical cases during the virtual classes that temporarily replaced their clinical work. Some cases aligned with common patient concerns in the hospital setting, but other cases allowed students to practice diagnosing more uncommon illnesses.

Once third-year students wrapped up the virtual replacement for their clinical work, they had the chance to enroll in electives for the remainder of the semester, getting a head start on fourth-year coursework, according to Senior Vice Dean for Educational Affairs Valerie Weber, MD, MS, FACP.

Guo was happy with the electives, and said many of his peers saw their benefits, too.

"We want to be able to keep accumulating credits so we can graduate on time," he explained. "And these electives aren't necessarily related to clerkships, but they allow you to pick and choose what you're interested in."

Guo took courses on radiology and HIV medicine, which he felt would help make him more well-rounded as an emergency room physician. He appreciated the opportunity the electives provided for students to study more deeply the areas that they already like; in contrast, clinical education comes with rotations that are required regardless of students' professional aspirations.

Guo also enrolled in a vaccine science course, feeling like it was especially of-the-moment and interesting.

Other third-year students opted to study telemedicine, in which digital technology allows medical professionals and patients to engage in virtual conversation, consults, and patient monitoring. Telemedicine's profile has risen significantly during the pandemic, but even before the COVID-19 crisis, experts predicted that telemedicine's already-significant popularity would only continue to rise.

Students could choose from 12 electives in all, according to Weber.

"Our faculty put the courses together within days, and the courses [were] highly valuable, well thought-out courses," she said. "I'm just so proud of our faculty and how they did this. Most of the time, people came forward and said, ‘Hey, I'll do this.' It wasn't even that we were asking."

Luckily for faculty and third-year students, the MD candidates weren't strangers to online learning before COVID-19 came along, either.

First- and second-year MD students have learned remotely from recorded lectures, using the videos and assigned readings to prepare for in-class discussions with their peers and professor. In the classroom, students break off into small groups to diagnose a patient case presented to them by the professor, who is on hand to answer questions and hear each group's final consensus.

Remote lectures have been giving MD students an opportunity for self-directed study since the early 2000s, according to Arnold Smolen, PhD, the College of Medicine's associate dean for information technology.

Smolen leads the department of Technology in Medical Education (TIME), which began collaborating with professors in early March to prepare for a shift to virtual education. Department members spent time gauging faculty members' needs and typical teaching processes to best help educators replicate their classrooms online.

First- and second-year MD program courses translated readily to fully remote education when the time came, according to Smolen. Faculty and students recreated their small-group lab instruction on Zoom, with students taking to "break-out rooms" from the main video call instead of gathering around lab tables to work amongst themselves within the larger meeting.

Weber credited the Office of Educational Affairs and its recent curriculum renewal for making the transition to remote learning smoother. She also credited TIME, while Smolen said his department's work was made a bit easier than it might otherwise have been thanks to the College's history of successful virtual education.

The rising fourth-year MD Program students returned to clinical settings on Monday, June 8. The rising third-year medical students will begin on Monday, July 6. Plans are underway for a blend of virtual and in-person, social distanced learning for the rising first and second-year medical students, and for an incoming student orientation on Monday, August 3.

The DUCOM Office of Educational Affairs is closely monitoring the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state and local public health authorities, and Drexel University to safely plan on campus learning and activities for our classes.

"It's been a little different this year, but we'll continue providing students a quality education while keeping them safe," Weber said.