Why paramedic, nursing and medical students got sent home

With limited PPE and the high-patient care demands of COVID-19 patients, most EMT, paramedic, nursing and medical students were sent home from clinical training


The Association of American Medical Colleges released an announcement on March 17 recommending that medical students suspend “their medical students’ participation in any activities that involve patient contact.” Similarly, other healthcare students have also been sent home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nursing students, physical therapy and occupational therapy students, pharmacy students, and EMT and paramedic students, to name a few.

I am a paramedic and third-year medical student at the University of New Mexico with over a decade of experience as a paramedic with rural volunteer agencies, the National Park Service, and urban EMS systems. My education has been dramatically affected by this pandemic, like many others. I have been sent home from valuable clinical rotations where I learn directly from patients and mentors. As I sit at home in my kitchen typing this, my coursework is now relegated to the internet. I will interact with my faculty and peers through video chats, and will not see a patient for at least the next six weeks.

Many of us, inside and outside healthcare, may initially think this move is counterintuitive. Can’t students still help? Isn’t another set of hands going to be needed in this unprecedented healthcare crisis? Others may feel that this is interfering with valuable clinical learning, and in part, they are right. This will likely delay graduation for many students around the world. That, however, is not where our responsibility lies in this unprecedented moment.

Paramedic students practice their skills on simulation manikins and equipment. Image: Truckee Meadows Community College/Wikimedia Commons
Paramedic students practice their skills on simulation manikins and equipment. Image: Truckee Meadows Community College/Wikimedia Commons

This is a conundrum for me, because I became involved in this line of work, like many others, to help people. It is difficult to sit at home and practice good social distancing as our teachers, mentors, and role models place themselves in harm’s way to care for patients.

Staying home is socially responsible

Students are additional vectors for potential virus transmission, simply by our presence in the hospital. Every additional person in a patient’s room, walking through the halls of the hospital, or riding on the ambulance increases the risk for exposure and asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 to others, both in the hospital and out in the community. We do ourselves, our patients, our teachers, and our communities a great service by simply reducing our own exposures.

There are hospitals around the U.S. that simply do not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for their paid staff, let alone learners. Some hospitals are requiring healthcare providers to re-use single-use supplies, such as N95 masks and face shields because the demand is so high. First responders are asking for PPE donations from dentists and construction companies Until we can catch up on the production of PPE to keep both patients and providers safe, the preservation of that equipment for our essential healthcare providers is paramount.

Students can serve and support

In the meantime, students, we can still help. Contact your hospital to see if you’re qualified to help with tele-health consultations about COVID-19. See if your state Department of Health has any additional support needs. If you have an EMT or paramedic certification you might be able to run calls or help with support tasks with your local EMS service. Check on your elderly neighbors. Reach out to your teachers and mentors, because their childcare may have fallen through, or they may need help getting groceries or other supplies as they practice more rigid social distancing than many of the rest of us. Know that practicing good social distancing by playing your part in staying home and washing your hands may, in the end, save hundreds of thousands of lives.

Finally, weeks or months from now, when PPE is restocked and our hospital and EMS systems re-open to learners, we have another social responsibility that extends beyond the old expectations for our education. It is our responsibility to support our teachers and mentors, as their work has not stopped during this pandemic. They worked overtime when their colleagues were sick. They may become sick themselves. This national emergency is taking a toll on them, their families, and our system. It is our responsibility to support them. To pick up slack in places we might not have previously. To lift them up with our energy and compassion, and to remind them through our actions that we are all in this together. This is how we contribute and support the providers we aspire to be.

References:

  1. Whelan, A. et al. Guidance on Medical Students’ Clinical Participation Effective Immediately. March 17, 2020. Association of American Medical Colleges.

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