Supporting medical training amid a pandemic: 3 leaders weigh in

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted traditional learning processes and environments for medical schools, nursing programs and academic medical centers nationwide. 

Whether switching to remote learning options or adopting additional safety precautions, these institutions have quickly adapted their processes for students this fall. 

A panel of clinical and educational leaders discussed how to foster effective, supportive learning environments amid the pandemic during a Sept. 25 session at the Academic Medical Centers Virtual Forum. Panelists included:

  • Patti Hart, DNP, MSN., RN, chief nursing officer at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston

  • Christine Warren, MD, associate dean of admissions and student affairs at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine of Case Western Reserve University

  • Andy Garman, professor of health systems management at Rush University in Chicago

Here are three excerpts from their conversation, lightly edited for clarity. To view the full session on-demand, click here.

Question: What are some of the most important things leaders can do to foster an effective, supportive learning environment for students?

Andy Garman: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students and healthcare professionals entering the field to have exposure to a pandemic. If students were to miss out on this opportunity to learn alongside seasoned professionals, it would be a huge missed learning opportunity. Some of that was unavoidable, and we were unprepared in ways that we can't go back and redo. But I've been a big advocate for the importance of continuing those relationships, and that is sort of the formative process of people thinking of themselves as healthcare professionals.

In terms of health systems and higher education, the thing I keep hearing is the importance of building individual relationships. And so at Rush, that was managed through a lot more proactive focus on student academic advisers to build those relationships. Fortunately, we're finding the Zoom platform can work OK for that. It works a lot better if there's at least an initial face-to-face meeting, so you get a sense of a person beforehand. But it's important to be much more active in reaching out and ensuring that those relationships are getting built.

Dr. Patti Hart: I think it is also important that students feel cared for and safe. Not only by following CDC guidelines and ensuring they have personal protective equipment, but by giving them the ability to have somebody close to them who they can rely on. One thing we did with not only our students, but our care team members, is give them the resources to build that resilience. We encouraged regular debriefings and worked to ensure they had the tools they needed, because everybody adapts to change during a pandemic and the anxiety in a different way. We also promoted the availability of their clinical instructors and managers on the unit to make sure they were cultivating an environment that made students realize they were safe and cared for.

Dr. Christine Warren: One thing we've learned is that you can never communicate too much and to be open and transparent. I think you can relieve some stress and anxiety, even by just saying something like, 'We really don't know what's going to happen next week or at this point, but work with us. We're going to work together. Give us your feedback; we're all part of the team.'

In mid-March, we started doing town hall meetings every morning. So from 7:30 to 8, everyone in leadership at the medical school would meet with faculty and administrative staff and students, and it was an open forum for people to come together and share updates. Now we still do them three times a week, but that has really allowed everyone to feel like they're engaged and can open up and be part of the community.

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