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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.

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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?”

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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.

  • “What is the difference between my ability to practice medicine now and my ability to practice in June?”

    None at all, because your ability to practice medicine is negligible in either case. You get your real training in residency. A medical school diploma just proves you’re teachable, have a minimal base of medical knowledge to build on, and you probably don’t have any serious personality disorder or ethical defects.

    Starting your residency a couple months early would not really bring anything to the table, except in the most dire circumstances where there really aren’t enough doctors (not the case for just about everywhere except New York). I admire your drive, motivation, and energy.

    Stay home for now, your time will come. Don’t be in such a big hurry, most people are stressed and unhappy in residency. Adding a lethal infectious virus into it is only going to worsen the strain on you. Those positive qualities I noted will be put to the test. Recognizing that now is the true test of your humility.

  • “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’m glad the author pointed that out, because that is indeed essential. Another thing to keep in mind is that by limiting the number of staff treating patients, PPE can also be conserved.

    So enjoy the freedom now. You will not enjoy such free time as an intern.

    • HAVING to stay home is not freedom. It is not enjoyable. It is responsible and ethical.

  • Graduating medical students offer very little and take up a lot of resources. They need extensive supervision because they know nothing. From entering orders dosing medications they are a huge liability. Worst times to be in the hospital is June July when death rates are higher due to a barrage of medical students now doctors that think they know everything and can “save the world” but in reality will end up killing more patients than they save. Graduate residents earlier. These are doctors that can actually help.

    • Graduating medical students know more enough about medicine to have passed multiple shelf exams and practical hands in rotations in variety of specialties over The latter 2 years of school in addition to the grueling course and hands on work in clinical problem solving over the first 2 years. To say they offer little and know nothing is to assume a resident learns all of what they know in 2 years.

      What you may observe as “knowing nothing” only suggests you are looking at functional skills in a new hospital with a new set of responsibilities. It’s part of a physicians growth, not the starting point.

      Anyway…the original opinion piece here is well written. Stay home, enjoy the freedom you’ll never enjoy again u til you retire and stay healthy.

  • My daughter is also a 2020 non-graduation ceremony-graduate from a New York Medical School who was diagnosed with a mild case of COVID-19 just prior to her final elective rotation. After a virtual exam/ evaluation she was directed to self self quarantine for two weeks. In some respects I think she was lucky since the various hospitals where she has done rotations over the past two years have been virtual war zones.
    As a medical corpsman myself in an infantry unit in Vietnam, I certainly understand the hazards involved with fulfilling your responsibilities however my greatest concern for her safety is simply that med school grads are not hospital employees and therefore are not covered by health insurance. If you do get sick your basically on your own and in the case of NYC hospitals overwhelmed with patients you are truly putting your life at risk.

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