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Online pandemic curriculum brings diverse impacts of COVID-19 to medical students

By Susan E. W. Spencer

UMass Medical School Communications

April 02, 2020
 Jorge Yarzebski, EMTP, FP-C, presents "A Day in the Life" session as part of the new pandemic curriculum.

Third-year medical students at UMass Medical School are getting real-time lessons in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic—a topic not covered in medical textbooks—through an innovative online pandemic curriculum.

The interprofessional course is designed to help medical students understand the multidimensional nature of disaster and pandemic response through virtual experiences with members of the clinical, scientific and public health communities, according to Melissa Fischer, MD, MEd, professor of medicine and associate dean for undergraduate medical education.

“The pandemic is not focused on a clinic or medical center. It’s really community,” Dr. Fischer said. “We’re trying to highlight how complex that is.”

Fischer led a curriculum team with the Graduate School of Nursing and School of Medicine, including the Baystate Regional Campus in Springfield, home to the Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health Track.

“We felt like this was an opportunity for us to come together as a health sciences campus,” she said. The initiative would help students and, ideally, the larger community, “respond more efficiently and effectively for the next threat.”

For each session, an educator posts a brief recorded welcome video, introducing the impact of the pandemic on their work. At least one livestream video, with question-and-answer periods via chat, is scheduled each day with a health professional, scientist or community advocate.

The class website also includes resources to help students learn the epidemiology, symptoms and treatment of COVID-19, as well as follow rapidly expanding literature and, importantly, cope with stress.

A video series, “A Day in the Life,” reflects each day on how coronavirus affects a medical school or hospital community member and the population they serve, professionally and personally.

The course is required for all third-year medical students, who returned from the mid-semester break unable to enter their clinical rotations because of the virus. This new approach offers educators a way to rebuild clinical clerkships at a time when student-patient contact is restricted. The curriculum is also available to students in the Graduate School of Nursing.

At the end of the course’s first week, students posted group projects online, featuring creative educational tools such as a COVID-19 quiz styled after the TV game show, “Jeopardy;” a music video about physical distancing; and a directory of Worcester community resources for families and children.

A second set of group projects is in the works, including one group that is curating what can be learned from the pandemic course and brought forward into the undergraduate curriculum.

“I have personally never seen a time that held such change or in which so many people demonstrated such teamwork,” Fischer said in her introductory video.

Fischer described, as an example, how her primary care clinic moved to telehealth, providing patient consultation remotely.

Andrew S. Karson, MD, chief medical officer at UMass Memorial Health Care and leader of UMass Memorial Medical Center’s COVID-19 response command center, discussed in "A Day in the Life” video the role of disaster-management planning in hospitals and the need to address problems in a coordinated way. Having to overcome delays in testing, limited availability of personal protective equipment and grueling demands on health care providers on the front lines are issues the command team wrestles with.

“One of the things we think about at the command center is the sustainability of this,” Dr. Karson said. He called pandemic response not just a marathon, but a 100-mile ultra-endurance event.

Karson highlighted collaboration within the community to carry the pandemic response workload, such as internal medicine and family practice physicians helping in the Emergency Department. “This is UMass at its best and health care at its best,” he said.

Third-year emergency medicine resident Courtney Temple, MD, shared in another video her “trial by fire” helping to train doctors from other disciplines volunteering in the COVID-19 screening tent.

Chancellor Michael F. Collins discussed in a course video what crisis leadership was like.

“Crisis leadership is all about the imperative of the now,” Chancellor Collins said. “A leader cannot over-communicate during a crisis. Stay on message; this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Collins told students that he keeps a reminder on his desk to always offer thanks, appreciation, gratitude, hope, comfort and consistency.

“We know that this is going to change people’s lives forever,” said Fischer about the pandemic. “We’re looking at this with a vision of what we can learn going forward.”