HealthApril 10, 2020

Keeping up your medical training during the COVID-19 pandemic

By: Heidi Moawad, MD

In one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted medical training for many students, residents and fellows. Some hospitals and regions are seeing an influx of patients, while others have seen a slowdown in patient visits and admissions. You may be asked to triage patients or to conduct visits via telemedicine, or you may find yourself working fewer or shorter days.

At the same time, your training and education are likely to be low on the list of your teaching facility's priorities while they try to figure out how to manage resources and keep patients alive. While you can't forget to take care of yourself by staying safe and managing your own health and well-being, you can work toward gaining new skills and knowledge during this time of uncertainty.

Help when and where you can

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many of the familiar rules, and healthcare providers are taking on different roles. You might have to learn to read chest X-rays and CT scans even if you haven't done that before, as doctors are starting to recognize patterns of COVID-19 patients on imaging examinations, according to Investigative Radiology. Or you may be asked to take a more active role in the care of subacute patients if your senior attendings are managing an overflow of critical care patients.

It's OK to be flexible and to take on short-term duties that aren't exactly matched to the subspecialty of your dreams. Of course, patient safety is critical, and you need to speak up and ask for help if you're in over your head.

Fill in knowledge gaps

Now is the obvious time to learn about infection risk and control. We haven't seen anything quite like COVID-19 before. Experts are still uncertain about the different ways it may be transmitted and how long the agent survives on various surfaces.

Nevertheless, contagious infections are a fact of life. It's likely that you'll encounter novel infectious agents again during your life and your career, so becoming familiar with the protocols for controlling infection risk will serve you well for years to come. And building an understanding of the medical conditions and pharmacological therapies that make a person more susceptible to infections can be beneficial for your future practice, too, regardless of your specialty of choice.

You might also take the time to catch up on other weak areas of knowledge. If you're like most physicians in medical training, you might not have gotten a strong handle on certain topics because you were so busy studying high-yield material. Whether it's renal anatomy, pharmacology or orthopedic trauma, there are probably some areas of medicine that you could brush up on. Chances are you've already picked up the details that you need to know to do your job along the way in your training, but it can't hurt to sharpen your focus during your downtime.

Learn virtually

In the wake of COVID-19, virtual learning has become a buzzword. And some aspects of patient care are just not communicated well in writing. See if you can find videos of procedures or clinical findings so you can observe procedures and patient symptoms for yourself. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth tens of thousands.

When you were busy studying for boards, you might have memorized the areas of the brain and the neurotransmitters involved in Parkinson's disease for a high Step 1 score. But watching the patient tremors in action, the characteristic gait and the cog-wheeling rigidity gives you an appreciation of what patients are going through in ways that can't be described by words alone.

Similarly, watching a video of a rare procedure can give you a better view than you might have had while assisting in the operating room if your positioning wasn't the priority for optimizing patient care.

Learn to use technology for patient care

New technology is also becoming a major part of patient care. Between telemedicine, electronic medical records and the inevitable emergence of artificial intelligence on the horizon, being adept and flexible with technology will be a vital skill for physicians of the future.

If you have any hesitancy about using certain types of technology, consider taking a tutorial for a few hours a week. Most platforms aren't intuitive and have substantial security measures built into them. These factors can be cumbersome. But learning how to optimize your use of electronic ordering and documentation or patient videoconferencing when you don't need to will help ease the sticky aspects when you do.

Give yourself time for self-care

There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for people around the world. You might be anxious about your own health, feeling worried about your future or wracked with a nagging fear over the possibility that you could be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus. You might even feel guilty that you're relieved to have some time to yourself.

It's vital that you take care of your own mental health. Make sure you're getting enough sleep every night. Allow yourself the indulgence of watching a show or movie. Find an exercise routine that makes you feel good. And don't hesitate to seek the assistance of professionals who can help you cope with your own unique experience.

Heidi Moawad, MD
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