Professor John Sandars

The COVID 19 pandemic has seen unprecedented disruption in how we all live, learn and work; medical education has been no exception. 

The global impact has fallen mainly on clinical training, especially for medical students and junior doctors.  Traditional opportunities for clinical training, including general practice and hospital, initially became impossible due to the high workload of teachers since they were responding to the enormous demands created by a surging wave of seriously ill patients. Training via the ‘laying on of hands’ also became problematic.

Despite these initial challenges however, new and innovative approaches have been developed and implemented.  Medical students are now actively engaged in patient consultations through phone and video-links. Operations can be live-streamed to medical students and junior doctors and followed up by an associated online discussion with the surgeons.  Consultations and practical clinical skills can be practiced using the latest virtual reality techniques using personal headsets and mobile device apps.  

Medical students have also provided a vital contribution to healthcare, especially for raising awareness about the prevention of COVID-19 infection in the community and supporting the increasing number of testing and vaccination schemes. Through these activities, medical students have gained wide variety of skills that will be of great value for both their future personal and professional lives.

There are also increasing concerns about a global divide in medical education during the present uncertain times, particularly as many medical schools with low resources are also in some of the poorest countries of the world with the highest number of COVID-19 infections and other health challenges.

It is therefore essential that the initial creativity and innovation to medical education in response to the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Moreover, medical schools will need to continue sharing their expertise and innovations, particularly between schools with higher and lower resources.  Without practical help to implement some of the innovations, such as consultations by video or clinical training using virtual reality, future graduating medical students may not have the clinical knowledge and skills to ensure that they are adequately trained to work as junior doctors.

Rapidly conducting research and evaluation of the implementation of innovations, along with rapid dissemination, will also be essential to ensure that the important lessons learned can inform transfer and further refinement in other contexts, without a major time delay.  This is a challenge for current publishing opportunities, such as peer-reviewed journals. New free open access opportunities for widely disseminating research and evaluation related to medical education innovations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic will need to be developed.

Renewal of medical education has, and will continue to be a global challenge, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now is the time to act to ensure that we have a skilled future global workforce of doctors.

Prof John Sandars is Professor of Medical Education at Edge Hill University.

He recently gave an Edge Talk on this topic at the Edge Hill Festival of Ideas. This can be viewed here.