As the U.S began slowly grinding to a halt in February and March, we braced for the Covid-19 pandemic that would push the U.S. and other health care systems to their limits. As a fourth-year medical student, I was ready to jump into my life as a doctor and help respond to this medical crisis. After four years of premed classes in college and four years of medical school, I have been trained to help save the world. Except I wasn’t allowed to.
In mid-March, all U.S. medical students were pulled out of their work on hospital wards. Classes for first-, second-, and third-year medical students were moved online. For fourth-year students, that phase of our learning was done. We had already fulfilled the necessary credits to graduate and had matched to hospitals for our residency training, set to start in late June.
Some medical schools in hot-zone areas with a rush of Covid-19 patients started graduating their students early to join hospitals’ resident teams. Mere months away from treating patients under my own medical license, I too felt this calling to serve. Instead, I was told to stay home.
The number of patients with Covid-19 in my part of Pennsylvania is not yet dire enough for hospitals to put energy and limited resources into overcoming the obstacles of expedited licensing, insurance, and training that stand between graduated medical students and patient care. Instead, like millions of other Americans, we are “nonessential.” I sit at home feeling guilty that I cannot directly work to fight Covid-19, and I know many of my colleagues feel the same.
The question many medical students are asking is this: “What is the difference between my ability to practice medicine now and my ability to practice in June?”
The answer, simply put, is nothing.
But that isn’t the full story. Here’s the question we should be asking: “Would my early start to working in a hospital ease the stress felt by those now on the frontlines?”
I believe that the answer to this question is no.
Bringing in new residents early to participate in the Covid-19 response places extra demands on already burdened hospitals. Early deployment of newly graduated medical students would force hospitals to offer comprehensive onboarding and training months ahead of the planned June start time, expand the number of clinicians who need already scarce personal protective equipment, and pull experienced physicians from their clinical duties to provide the direct supervision that new residents need. In regions experiencing surges of Covid-19 patients, the possible benefits of more hands on deck supersede the negatives.
I want to help. I joined medicine to help. But it’s important to view the medical community’s response to the pandemic from a more strategic vantage point. Come June, the hope is that new residents will infuse new energy and perspective to the hospitals where we work. For now, though, we will continue the efforts to keep our communities safe by staying home.
It is impossible to predict the full impact that Covid-19 will have on my medical training and the health system as a whole. As difficult as it is after four years of medical school to feel nonessential, the reality is that we are all essential in this effort. By staying home, we reduce transmitting the virus that causes Covid-19, thereby saving lives.
I am so proud of, and humbled by, the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and countless others in health care who go to work every day to provide care in what must be frightening situations. If the need arises and I am called to work in a hospital before June, I will answer it without hesitation and gladly work beside them. If not, I recognize that sometimes, in medicine and in life, the hardest and wisest thing to do is to do nothing.
Gillian Naro is a fourth-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine. Her residency in internal medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia is scheduled to begin in June.