By Pat Lok
As the World Health Organization (WHO) declares the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic, many organizations, whether public or private, have begun carrying out their emergency measures as-per the WHO guidelines – closing non-essential businesses, limiting social interaction, and encouraging frequent, thorough hand-washing to minimize the risk of infection.
However, a certain sub-section of the student populous, the ‘healthcare professional’ students (HCP), are stuck in the grey area. The university trains a large cohort of healthcare professionals; these include paramedics, midwives, nurses, operating department practitioners (ODPs), physician associates (PAs) as well as doctors. But as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise in the East of England, where most HCP students go to work on placement, it’s difficult to say whether such placements should be called off or not.
Clinical placements are integral to a HCP student’s learning; it’s where we get to implement our theoretical learning and clinical skills – we get to practice in real life. Bedside manner and clerking patients are experiences that you have to accumulate over-time; it’s not a skill that you can master within the length of a degree.
Due to their crowded timetables, it may be unrealistic for the university to rearrange placements at such short notice since the placement coordinator has to consider the availability of senior clinicians to supervise students and other corresponding logistics.
What Do Some HCP Students Think?
Mae Hollebon, a first-year midwifery student from Chelmsford, talks about her experience of going on a placement amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Personally I’m not overly worried about going on placement with the increase in cases although I know some people are! I’m just washing my hands thoroughly and often – which we do anyway! The ward I’m working on has had a couple of changes- if women have any symptoms they have to be checked over by a doctor before being readmitted to the ward! Otherwise, we haven’t been affected much on the postnatal ward. Things are changing very quickly; a lot of staff are off as they consider themselves as high risk. Mothers are not allowed visitors anymore and their partners can only stay limited hours.”
I also spoke with a second-year paramedic student who will go on placement in both London and Essex.
“We’re younger than the population who tends to be affected by COVID-19 which is majority [of] elderly people. However, the nature of our placement is that we get rotated around when we go on placements. For example, I will be spending a period of time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), followed by A&E, followed by the maternity ward. I’m just thinking that if I were to be infected, it will be sometime before the symptoms emerge as a study recently reported that it takes an estimated 5.1 days for patients to be symptomatic. By then I will have rotated to another ward and could be infecting other people.”
In a document sent to paramedic students through the university, The London Ambulance Service (LAS) tries to address some of our paramedic students’ worries over COVID-19.
Pat Lok, author and second-year medical student, who has recently finished her GP placement, talks about her experience of going on clinical placement in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic.
“It could be quite scary to see the number of COVID-19 cases going up every day but we’re taking the corresponding preventative measures, such as washing hands after seeing each patient. Some of my peers had PPE (personal protective equipment) training, a lecture on COVID-19 and the results of the ongoing screen programme that is being carried out when they were on their GP placement.
We were informed by our School of Medicine recently that our 3-week block placement will carry on as usual in 2 weeks; a few of my peers will be having their placement at hospitals with infected individuals. I’m not particularly frightened as this is what we are trained for, to look after the sick and come up with a solution to combat this contagious virus.”
How Are Our Counterparts Reacting to COVID-19?
Medical professionals regularly hold conferences and meet-ups to disseminate research and exchange ideas. It’s an established and efficient way to be kept up-to-date about the details that matter to our profession. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many medical conferences have been cancelled or postponed for an undetermined period of time.
Some universities are cancelling their OSCE examinations (objective structured clinical examination) for their final year medical students. OSCE is an important performance indicator of healthcare professional student as it assesses your communication skills, clinical reasoning, as well as your clinical knowledge.
What Happens Now?
COVID-19 is not an incurable disease. The WHO reported that people with mild illness will recover in about 2 weeks, while those with more severe presentations may take 3-6 weeks. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is a bit less than 1%, as estimated by Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England. We can adopt protective measures, recommended by the WHO to protect ourselves from contracting the virus, by washing your hands frequently, maintaining social distance and avoid touching eyes, noses and mouths.
As for us HCP students, the COVID-19 pandemic could be seen as an invaluable learning opportunity. The outbreak of infectious viruses isn’t new to the UK; in the past, the UK has tackled outbreaks of SARS-CoV, MERS-CoV and Ebola. So when HCP students go on their clinical placements, we should be supportive and understanding of NHS staff who are working on the front line amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, and try to absorb some of their talent and experience as we work.
Update: At the point of publication, all medical placements have been cancelled for all ARU medical students and second-year paramedic students until further notice.