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Transforming the Healthcare Workforce Begins in Medical School

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed immense stress on the entire U.S. healthcare system but has also revealed the healthcare workforce’s resiliency and ability to drive transformation. Whether through the rapid rollout of telemedicine practices, rechanneling of hospital resources to support the demand for critical care patients, or quickly evolving therapeutic strategies for COVID-19 in response to direct experience and emerging medical literature, healthcare workers have proven to be nothing short of heroic in navigating unprecedented challenges.

Similar adaptations filtered through the medical education ecosystem in parallel, partly out of necessity and partly with an eye to the future. As anatomy labs became inaccessible to students, medical schools embraced digital visualization technologies they were previously hesitant about. Faculty who had presented in live lecture halls for decades quickly reinvented themselves as remote instructors to a student body that was dispersed around the country, and in some cases, around the world. Administrators who previously had relied on faculty to keep tabs on student progress began to embrace digital assessment tools as a mechanism for identifying at-risk students.

These rapid adaptations have been successful at keeping the important work of healthcare training moving forward in extremely difficult times. Some have been more than successful: many medical schools have realized that some of these new digital tools, while not a replacement for “hands-on” modes of learning, are uniquely valuable in and of themselves, and have comparative benefits that can’t be ignored. Some faculty, for instance, are discovering that an online approach to education, while onerous in some ways, also democratizes the classroom in others, making it easier for some students who in an in-person setting may be inclined to keep quiet to become more vocal and interactive. Others recognize that while digital anatomy tools can never replace fresh cadaver dissection, they do create opportunities for interactive assignments that meaningfully supplement hands-on anatomy training to extend the student’s knowledge.

The key question facing medical schools now is how many of the short-term COVID-19 responses will remain a permanent part of medical education going forward? It’s too early to say for certain, as the pandemic is sadly still with us. But it’s clear that the answer is that many, though perhaps not all, of the recent adaptations will be integrated into the medical curriculum even after the pandemic has passed.

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Here are three adaptations that have a reasonable likelihood of remaining and positively impacting healthcare workforce readiness in the future:

  • Blended learning – During the pandemic, medical schools have moved to online learning out of necessity. But today’s and tomorrow’s medical students are largely digital natives, for whom online instruction is, in the right context and in the right amount, amenable rather than an inconvenience. As a result, we can expect many medical institutions to continue to take advantage of online learning post-pandemic. It’s not likely that these institutions will migrate away from brick-and-mortar campuses, as the value of social learning in the development of critical thinking is immense. It is likely that many institutions will utilize online instruction to accelerate the journey towards “flipped classrooms” that they had already been pursuing, gradually, before the pandemic. Under the flipped classroom model, students will be encouraged to work through foundational and formative learning independently in advance, online, and use classroom time purely for discussion of clinical problems and cases helping students to build their clinical thinking.
  • Rise of digital anatomy – It’s doubtful that medical schools will ever, or should ever, transition away from traditional anatomy labs. But there are aspects of anatomy instruction that digital tools can in fact facilitate more expansively than traditional labs. Familiarity with diverse body types is one example. No gross anatomy lab can provide students with a broad range of body types for every procedure, due to expense and practicality, but properly constructed digital tools can expose the student to dozens of different models. Properly balanced alongside a return to the gross anatomy lab, digital anatomy tools will likely remain a permanent part of the medical curriculum once the pandemic has passed.

Telemedicine – It’s becoming clear that a material portion of healthcare delivery will continue to be provided through telemedicine after the pandemic has passed. Whether the proportion of patient visits will be 10%, 20%, or more is debatable; that telemedicine will be a fundamental aspect of access to healthcare in the U.S. for the foreseeable future is not. Consequently, medical schools are starting to incorporate training for telemedicine into their curricula, recognizing that medical students need to be specifically guided on how to perform a digital patient consults in areas ranging from oncology to neurology to dermatology. These new course areas will not only remain but are likely to expand after the pandemic, eventually becoming mature programs with rigorous, evidence-based foundations.

While it’s unclear whether all three of these specific trends will materialize as envisioned or not, what is clear is that medical schools will not simply “return to normal” once the pandemic has passed. Deans and faculty will continue to learn from the best of what they have had to improvise over the past year to fundamentally reshape their educational approach for the future. The touchstone that institutions will and should look to in taking stock of these new directions is the same that guided their innovation during the pandemic: the students themselves. Throughout the pandemic, medical schools were squarely focused on the needs and preferences of their students when weighing various courses of action. By continuing to listen to and understand the concerns and learning styles of students once the pandemic has passed, medical schools will be best positioned to do what they have done for more than a century: continually evolve and reinvent themselves to meet the needs of a changing healthcare system, changing world, and changing student community.

This article was provided by Wolters Kluwer’s Health Learning, Research, and Practice business.

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