Medical Education in a Global Crisis

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UHN researchers unravel the experiences of medical students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Posted On: February 28, 2024
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(L-R) Sallie Han, MD student at the University of Toronto and previous research student under Dr. Joyce Nyhof-Young, and Dr. Joyce Nyhof-Young, Education Investigator at The Institute for Education Research and senior author of the study.

A recent study at The Institute for Education Research (TIER) explored the challenges experienced by medical students during the COVID-19 pandemic and highlighted how institutions can provide more equitable support to students during times of crisis.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world witnessed unprecedented disruptions across various sectors, and medical education was no exception. Medical students were suddenly faced with unique learning challenges including the need to quarantine from exposure, lack of hands-on training, isolation from peers, and decreased work performance.  

Researchers led by Dr. Joyce Nyhof-Young, Education Investigator at TIER and senior author of the study, interviewed and engaged with 23 medical students from the University of Toronto who experienced two-week quarantines following exposure to hospital or community transmission.

Sallie Han, a current medical student at the University of Toronto and first author of the study, shares a poignant insight into the journey of these quarantined students, stating, "Their experiences shed light on the intricate web of challenges and supports that shape the educational landscape during crises."

Using online surveys and interviews, the research team unravelled experiences of uncertainty, resilience, and solidarity, and explored students’ concerns, supports, and recommendations for the medical program. They found that these students had deep concerns surrounding uncertainty about their health, racial tensions, confidentiality, unclear academic expectations, and financial burdens.

“Despite these challenges, students identified sources of support, including friends, family, and the medical program administration,” states Dr. Nyhof-Young. “The findings paint a vivid portrait of the multifaceted impact of the pandemic on medical education and underscore the significance of identifying barriers while fostering supportive avenues to empower students in overcoming challenges.”

Key recommendations included improving communication to mitigate uncertainty, establishing standardized administrative crisis response plans and policies, incorporating equity considerations into personalized supports, and protecting confidentiality and privacy.  When presented with these findings, the medical program responded positively to the students' recommendations and has been implementing service changes through the Office of Learner Affairs to continue to improve student wellbeing and learning.

This research serves as a call for institutions worldwide to foster a culture of support for their students and to continue conversation surrounding the impact of socioeconomic factors on student experiences.

This work was supported by the University of Toronto and UHN Foundation. Sallie Han received support from the University of Toronto’s COVID-19 Student Engagement Award. Dr. Joyce Nyhof-Young is a Professor in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

Han S, Kim I, Rojas D, Nyhof-Young J. Investigating the experiences of medical students quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure. Can Med Educ J. 2023 Dec 30. doi: 10.36834/cmej.75571.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically impacted medical education systems. Understanding the experience of medical students during the pandemic can help institutions better support students in general and during times of crisis.