How the next generation of doctors is being impacted by coronavirus

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Around the world, health-care professionals are putting their lives on the line to combat coronavirus. 

As of Monday, April 6, Johns Hopkins University estimates there are 1,292,564 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide and that 70,798 people have lost their lives due to the pandemic — among them doctors, nurses and first responders.

Now, the next generation of doctors is preparing to join the fight.

CNBC Make It spoke with medical students to see how coronavirus is impacting their education and their lives: 

What it's like to go to medical school online

In the United States, many colleges and universities have closed their campuses and moved classes online. This shift has impacted medical students in the first two years of their medical school educations differently than those in their final two years. The first two years of medical school traditionally emphasize in-classroom lectures, discussions and labs, while the final two years of medical school typically involve clinical rotations, assisting doctors and watching procedures in person.

Alex Graff is a first-year medical student at Columbia University's Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. He says he prefers learning at his own pace but admits the transition to remote learning has been awkward. 

"The shift to online classes does not feel as dramatic for me as it might for someone who is a religious lecture goer, but the change of going online for small interactive groups has definitely been a little bit difficult, just with the clumsy communication that happens over Zoom," he explains. 

But for Calvin Lau, a third-year medical student at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine, the shift online has been more significant. Lau had six weeks left of his first year of clinical rotations and is now reading about surgeries and watching surgeries over Zoom instead of observing them in person at the hospital. 

"I am very aware that this will impact my understanding and perception of surgery probably for the rest of my career," he says. "I'm thinking about doing pediatrics, so I probably won't see surgery in the way I was going to ever again." 

How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students
How coronavirus changed college for 14 million students

Canceled commencements

The students most impacted by recent events have been fourth-year medical students, who have had their final weeks of medical school cut short and, in many cases, had their graduations canceled. 

"Fourth years, I think, have had it really hard," says Lau. "You work really hard for three and a half years of med school and then you usually enjoy that last six months to travel with your friends, do electives that you really wanted to do, go to match day with your friends and that is all gone."

Erika Wickstrom, a fourth-year medical student at Des Moines University, says she is disappointed that her graduation has been canceled and that her peers are "a little bitter."

"But it's something no one could have predicted and it's impacted so many people, so it's hard to be bitter about something so minor," she tells CNBC Make It. "In my world it's a big deal, but I know it's not the biggest deal for other people."

Wickstrom recently matched with Plainview Hospital in New York and predicts that she may be treating patients impacted by coronavirus when she starts her residency. Her orientation begins on June 22, and she officially starts July 1. 

"A lot of first-year residents could be facing this in July," she says. "I'm really hoping that it's under control by then, but it could be a big transition with a bunch of new residents acting as physicians for the first time and then coping with this virus on top of it." 

Early graduations

Many fourth-year medical students may become doctors even sooner than July as states give special licenses to fourth-year students so that they can join the fight against coronavirus.  

Massachusetts has pledged to give 90-day medical licenses to fourth-year medical students in order to add some 700 doctors across the state. In response, Massachusetts universities such as Tufts University, the University of Massachusetts and Boston University graduated medical students early. 

Columbia University graduated fourth-year medical students roughly a month early and offered them temporary employment at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. 

Rutgers University expedited graduation for fourth-year medical students as well. 

"I am proud that Rutgers is able to do its part to act so quickly in the midst of the pandemic," said Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences in a statement. "Many of our students have already been volunteering to support COVID-19 efforts and I know these soon-to-be doctors will be greatly appreciated as they enter the workforce." 

Shreya Thatai, a second-year medical student at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program collecting personal predictive equipment for healthcare workers alongside fellow students.

Wide-ranging volunteer efforts

Medical students have found creative ways to support the battle against coronavirus — from collecting supplies and raising funds to babysitting and donating blood — even if they aren't doctors quite yet. 

"From what I've seen, medical students, in general, feel very motivated to try to do something to help," Shreya Thatai, a second-year medical student at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program tells CNBC Make It. "We're in this space of being so close yet so far away from being useful and having our field being called to action."

Thatai is part of a student effort to collect supplies for health-care workers. 

"We're standing outside with signs basically asking private citizens to donate any personal predictive equipment (PPE) that they have, which includes masks and goggles and gowns," she says, estimating that students collected thousands of items over two days, often from families who have emergency wildfire supplies. "I've been super moved."

"So much of the messaging has convinced people that masks are going to be what keeps them alive," she explains. "And even with that messaging, people are really digging deep and giving us these masks that they've been keeping, in theory, to protect themselves. And it's been really beautiful to see how people are showing up for each other."

Elyse Conley, a third-year medical student at UCLA is part of a city-wide coalition of medical students helping to support health-care workers with everything from buying groceries to scheduling haircuts. 

"Most medical students that I know go to medical school because they're passionate about helping people," Conley tells CNBC Make It, describing a Google Doc involving more than 80 medical student volunteers who sign up to help in various ways from picking up groceries to hand-sewing masks. 

A mother of 3-year-old twins, Conley quickly realized that health-care workers would be needing child care and worked to coordinate for medical students to babysit the children of health-care workers — including doctors, nurses and medical technicians. 

Conley was looking for child care for her own kids when she learned that groups of physicians were arranging for the older children look after younger ones. 

"Maybe that's a good option for some, but it leaves a lot of gaps because that requires you to have a coalition of parents in place," says Conley. "It just left me wondering what was happening to the techs and their kids and the nurses and their kids."

Renewed interest in addressing structural issues

Many medical students said that the pandemic is putting a spotlight on systemic issues in health care they hope to address. 

"This has really highlighted how broken our system is here," says Conley. "I'm really interested in health equity issues and public health, so my plan is to go into internal medicine and potentially have a focus on those kinds of areas. This just reinforces my reasons for wanting to do that in my career."

Columbia student Graff says the pandemic shows the cracks in the for-profit medical-industrial complex.

As a result of the pandemic, he's felt renewed interest to push for a structural shift that incentivizes hospitals to prioritize preventative health-care for all people — regardless of race or income bracket — over elective procedures that currently generate more revenue. 

"I want to include fighting oppression in my practice, in whatever form that takes," he says.

The next next generation of doctors

And while current medical students are preparing to become the next generation of doctors, many students mentioned concerns about the generation who will follow them. 

Lau, the UCLA med student, worries younger students will see the dire circumstances facing doctors and will be discouraged from entering the field.

"I really, really hope this doesn't happens, but if things start to go really south like they did in Italy, who is going to be attending medical schools and the medical education programs?" says Lau. "We have doctors who are dying because they are getting sick. What does that say about training the next generation of doctors?"

Thatai is more optimistic.

"Maybe we'll get a lot more doctors out of this," she tells CNBC Make It. "I feel like for younger folks, maybe in high school or in undergrad right now, this could be a real motivating force to enter health care: nurses and doctors and medical practitioners and everyone."

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