uddenly, classrooms and clinical rotations were shut down, graduate students were told to leave the labs and USMLE Step 1 and 2 testing was on hold everywhere, prompting the college’s education faculty to launch a tireless effort to ensure their nearly 1,000 medical, physician assistant, PhD and master’s students continued meaningful learning amid the world’s worst health crisis in more than 100 years.
UF Provost Joe Glover asked instructors to move all face-to-face classes online March 10, and a big concern centered around keeping soon-to-graduate medical and PA students on track with their clinical rotation requirements. Seven days later, Senior Associate Dean for Educational Affairs Joe Fantone, MD, suspended all students’ clinical activity.
“We hoped to avoid such a move, but it became clear we had to remove students from direct patient care for their safety and the safety of our patients,” Fantone said. “We were also keenly sensitive to concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment in our hospitals.”
With medical school graduation two months away, student schedules were markedly altered, and new courses and clinical experiences that included expanded telehealth were rapidly developed to meet graduation requirements. The UF School of PA Studies graduation was planned for mid-June, which presented the biggest challenge as about 20% of the graduating students’ clinical obligations were scheduled in the final three months of their training.
“We had to develop high-quality educational alternatives that would meet graduation requirements — and fast,” Fantone said.
Rising to the challenge
Faculty in the School of PA Studies began analyzing the settings and types of patient learning already logged by students in each of the required rotations, identifying gaps that needed to be filled.
“The various departments within UF Health stepped up to help provide clinical experiences through online and telehealth means for students with outstanding training needs,” said Nina Multak, PhD, MPAS, PA-C, the associate dean and Randolph B. Mahoney Director of UF’s PA school. “I am extremely grateful for the support we received under difficult circumstances.”
Because the college has a sturdy online learning infrastructure in place, shifting courses from the classroom to a digital platform wasn’t complicated. Overnight, small group interactions took to Zoom, and the anatomy education team had no shortage of creative ways to deliver clinically relevant material, including video-recorded dissections and online sessions where detailed 3D images of the human body were reviewed with instructors.
With most UF laboratories closed, graduate students who were not responsible for maintaining animal colonies or cell cultures or working with COVID-19 research relocated their thesis and dissertation work to their homes, focusing on data analysis and literature review.
Learning about COVID-19
By mid-April, new coursework was in place that put COVID-19 at the forefront, including a weeklong capstone course required for first-year medical students that was developed by faculty members Peter Sayeski, PhD, and Grant Harrell, MD ’10, as well as a two-week elective course for rising third- and fourth-year medical students, developed by Maureen Novak, MD.
“The capstone course, which required independent project time that led to students helping with the pandemic, was designed to prepare learners to address the new disease and its population health ramifications,” said Heather Harrell, MD ’95, the newly appointed associate dean for medical education.
The elective course introduced students to the microbiology, epidemiology and emerging ethical and population health implications of COVID-19 as well as potential treatments through online activities and Zoom-based small group discussions.
Serving their community
COVID-19 may have eliminated a number of milestone events, including memorable celebrations like Match Day and commencement, but that didn’t hamper the students’ desire to learn and serve their community. Most seized opportunities to help where needed — with the area’s most vulnerable populations.
On March 23, more than 100 medical and PA students volunteered to assist UF Health in coronavirus screening for residents of The Villages®,a community that is home to more than 130,000 people age 55 and over. Since that initial two-week-long testing initiative, medical students have trained for and participated in testing programs geared toward the homeless population in Gainesville and residents in Cedar Key and Jacksonville, in addition to joining a number of other service projects.
Fourth-year student Lauren Lautenslager volunteered for testing programs and helped launch UF’s COVID-19 Student Service Corps chapter, which supports health systems, patients, the workforce and the communities facing the pandemic through interprofessional student service-learning projects.
“Many of us go into medicine because we get innate satisfaction from pouring ourselves out into others,” Lautenslager said. “Volunteering is a rewarding reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and it has given us a unique sense of purpose when the stay-at-home order made us feel unable to contribute.”
UF College of Medicine Interim Dean Joseph A. Tyndall, MD, MPH, said he has been extremely impressed with the collaborative efforts of faculty and students, which have led to the rapid development and implementation of new methods for curriculum delivery and assessment. He added that the entire UF Health Shands workforce is most impressed by the students’ enthusiasm and willingness to assist in a time of crisis.
“Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, the next generation of UF physicians, PAs and scientists have shown remarkable ability and creativity in finding ways to be of service,” Tyndall said.