Medical students support community, health system amid pandemic

May 12, 2020

When COVID-19 first appeared in Pennsylvania, doctors, nurses and other health care professionals and administrators braced themselves for an expected increase in the number of highly infectious patients they would encounter and treat.

While all that was going on, it seemed like medical education across the country would be brought to a halt with the need for students to remain safe by staying out of clinical environments and large lecture settings.

Not so at Penn State College of Medicine. 

With the safety of medical students at the forefront, College of Medicine leaders shifted their focus to virtual instruction, finding innovative ways for students to contribute meaningfully in the response to COVID-19.

Students are learning key skills they need to be doctors and physician assistants someday while working remotely to support Penn State Health’s patient care efforts and to keep Pennsylvania’s communities safe. Some are calling patients who receive a positive test result and making sure they have the support and resources to quarantine for two weeks. Others are identifying who COVID-19 patients may have exposed to the virus and educating them on how to isolate and monitor their symptoms.

In total, 408 medical and physician assistant students are signed up for more than 16 task forces – each with a critical function to support Penn State Health’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These task forces are the result of student passion and conversations with key leaders at Penn State Health and the College of Medicine.

“Coordination between the college and the health system has been key,” said Dr. Terry Wolpaw, professor of medicine and vice dean for educational affairs at the College of Medicine. “Health system leadership has identified critical areas they need support in, such as educating patients about the discharge process and next steps in their care. Then we align student interest and experience with those needs and match them with experienced faculty and staff who can provide oversight.”

Each task force’s duties not only had to align with health system needs, but also had to allow students to work remotely for safety and also be educational so students could be compensated for their time with credit.

One task force that has been critical for public health is the contact tracing group led by third-year medical students Paige Koetter and Matt Pelton and overseen by internal medicine physician Dr. Chris Sciamanna. Currently, more than 90 medical students, physician assistant students, public health graduate students and some nurse practitioner students from Penn State College of Nursing are contacting patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. They help identify who these patients may have exposed to the virus within the past two days before experiencing symptoms and then advise those individuals to self-isolate and monitor their symptoms. This public health strategy – recommended by the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control – has been identified as a necessity for reopening parts of the country that have been closed.

A group of students called patient navigators is also critical to Penn State Health’s COVID-19 efforts. They handle everything from following up with discharged COVID-19 patients to updating leaders of long-term care facilities on strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 among their residents, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

“We talk with administrators and frontline care staff in these facilities to answer their questions and offer guidance on facility policies to protect patients,” said Caleb Frank, a fourth-year medical student. “If we can prevent even one person in one of these facilities from contracting this disease, then our effort to save lives and reduce burden on the state’s health systems has been worthwhile.”

Patient navigation isn’t a new concept for students at Penn State College of Medicine – it’s something their professors introduce them to from the day they walk into the classroom. It involves students connecting with patients to find out what their health needs are outside the traditional clinic visit or hospital stay. Educators at the College of Medicine believe that medical education is more than just learning to diagnose and treat patients and understanding the biological processes that contribute to disease. They emphasize compassionate care through humanistic medicine and a fourth element called health systems science.

Dr. Jed Gonzalo, associate professor of medicine and associate dean of health systems science education, said this fourth element is what’s helping students contribute in meaningful ways during the pandemic. It teaches future medical professionals about the complex network of factors, processes and people that contribute to a patient’s care from the time they get sick until they recover.

“We teach students to identify where there may be gaps or misunderstandings in that process so that patients can receive the best care possible,” Gonzalo said. “This pandemic is tragic, but it also illustrates for us why understanding these nuances to patient care are so critical.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 12, 2020