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How Medical Students are Learning in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic was a radical disruption to life as we once knew it. However, the pandemic will also be earmarked as a transformative time for evolving medical education.

The rapid public health response to the pandemic demanded changes in delivering medical education. These course corrections magnified the necessity to broaden the scope of expertise among physicians and physicians-in-training across the United States.

Restrictions on Medical Educators

During the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare educators provided advice and guiding tenants in hopes of supporting medical physicians by helping them protect the health of their communities.

One of the major pandemic-driven challenges among the medical education community was the inability to provide a traditional clinical learning experience for students.

Due to the decreased accessibility of personal protective equipment, restricted COVID-19 testing capabilities, as well as unclear knowledge of how exactly the virus is transmitted, schools were hesitant to put students and patients in harm’s way.

Making matters worse was the decreased amount of patients (outside of those with the coronavirus searching for health care. Healthcare educators and residents had their hands full with COVID-19 case upswings, which caused sparse capacity to manage their medical students.

Online & Remote Learning

One of the most effective measures to prevent contracting COVID-19 is staying six feet apart through social distancing. This physical restriction makes it nearly impossible for students to learn in a brick and mortar setting such as lecture halls or in small group

Prior to the pandemic, instructors had already started to incorporate virtual lessons, making it easier for students to learn in a variety of settings. However, students were still meeting in-person in labs, bedside learning, and clinical lessons.

Faculty had to swiftly shift their curriculum to virtual presentations. Formats included online small group and team environments. Exams were also given remotely. The jump from the medical school location to home created increases in emails, feelings of isolation, and challenges with creating parameters between professional and personal

Graduating Early

The only public medical school in the state of Massachusetts, the University of Massachusetts, graduated their fourth-year medical students two months early. Doing so allowed the physicians to care for patients and mitigate staffing shortages during the
pandemic influx.

According to an NIH published medical journal, “These restrictions on the usual medical education model of clinical workplace learning required medical educators to outline priorities for the limited clinical learning experiences and design different approaches to competency attainment.”

The journal goes onto to say, “Guided by their established graduation competencies, schools prioritized clinical learning experiences for those students close to graduation, ensuring adequate preparation of the 2020 intern workforce. Some schools graduated students early so they could join the workforce.”


As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist, there is no end in sight for a total or swift return to how traditional medical education is delivered. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, it has exposed some clear improvements in medical education offered by distant instruction.

The academic community is reaching a broader audience, as well as extending clinical care by embracing virtual medicine more widely. Medical education’s “new normal” will ultimately improve by integrating the best aspects of both traditional teaching and post COVID-19 lessons.

Stay tuned for upcoming Auxo Medical blog posts where we’ll be discussing burnout among healthcare workers, and how to best support this community.