The impact of COVID-19 on Medical School Education: How the virus is impacting medical schools

All aspects of global life has changed since the onset of the novel COVID-19 pandemic. No sector of society has been spared. Medical education is no different. COVID-19 has posed unprecedented challenges for educational institutions, including medical schools, and has completed altered traditional admissions’ processes that have been unfazed for decades. Some of these measures include school closures, cancellation of licensing exams, cancellation of interviews, amongst other drastic measures.  

The American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are closely monitoring the COVID-19 global pandemic. Learn more at the AMA COVID-19 resource center and consult the AMA’s physician guide to COVID-19.

The challenges facing students and faculty members alike are unparalleled. Here are the different segments of medical school admissions that are being affected.

Clinical Clerkships:

Typically taking place during the third year of medical school, core clinical clerkships last between four and eight weeks across about 6 medical specialties. These are often a medical student’s most significant exposure to patients, as well as their opportunity to shine in front of preceptors. Due to the risk of patient exposures, self-exposure and community transmission, non-essential healthcare staff were drastically curbed.

On March 17, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) called for a two-week suspension of activities that involve students interacting with patients, effectively putting clinical rotations on hold.

In terms of the potential impact of postponing rotations, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) offered this advice to faculty members: “From national data that you have shared, the LCME knows that most of our medical schools have several elective weeks (or) months in the last year or phase of the curriculum. Should you need to interrupt or postpone clerkships or other required clinical experiences because of the real and important pressures and stresses of the clinical environment, these elective weeks are available to adjust your students’ clinical training schedules without having to delay completion of these required experiences before graduation.”

Away Electives and Medical Rotations

Away rotations tend to offer exposure to different specialties and facilities to medical students late in their training. These rotations are often the most desired. Students wait for these electives all year around as an opportunity to experience new medical specialties, new hospitals and new colleagues. However, in the face of COVID-19, AAMC is encouraging medical schools to help find “local alternatives” for students who planned away rotations in the coming months. The organization also recommends medical schools postpone rotations for students coming in from other medical schools.

While it seems most schools are heeding the AAMC advice, students are of course panicking that all of these important rotations are suspended.

For many students, suspending these electives will have significant impacts on their marketability for desired medical subspecialties and residency matching.

Shelf exams

A National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) Subject Exam—commonly called a shelf exam—is often administered with each clerkship rotation. The NBME’s vice president addressed the status of those exams, which are delivered to large groups in-person, in a recent statement.

“We recognize that preparing for and taking scheduled assessments at medical schools during [COVID-19] outbreak is causing uncertainty for everyone,” said Agata Butler, vice president of the NBME. “NBME is actively working with our service providers to coordinate operating plans. We are also investigating all possible options for assessment delivery and are certainly viewing this with urgency.”

To date, the NBME has suspended one exam under its umbrella. The United States Medical Licensing Exam Step 2 Clinical Skills portion was put on hold on March 16.

How Med Students Can Stay Safe From Coronavirus

MEDICAL SCHOOL IS demanding regardless of the circumstances, but now is an especially challenging time to be studying medicine. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has CREATED public fear, and it’s understandable for a medical student to feel anxiety – especially if he or she is in clinical rotations and interacting with patients.


The best course of action for med students to take, some experts say, is to strictly follow safety protocols and make an effort to “keep calm and carry on,”. BUT IS THIS REALITY?

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, some medical schools have canceled clinical rotations or shifted medical students away from emergency rooms and intensive care units. Medical students and residents tend to be steered away from patients who are suspected of being infected with COVID-19, and these patients are often redirected to fully trained practicing physicians, some experts observe.

Medical students who are still active in clinical rotations, in isolated circumstances should strictly adhere to CDC guidelines, IPAC guidelines and practice strict PPE regulations. Getting fit-tested for N95 respirator masks can help ensure that the face mask is tightly secured and functions properly. Medical students should avoid getting within six feet of a COVID-19 patient or, dawn PPE equipment as per CDC and IPAC guidelines.