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UK medical schools come together to respond to the coronavirus pandemic


Since the emergence of Covid-19, UK medical schools have stepped up to support the NHS in its time of need. Within weeks, medical schools were able to graduate final year students, redeploy staff and students within the NHS, and ensure the continued education of our future doctors through novel ways of teaching and assessment.

Strong collaborative networks

On the 24th March, the Health Secretary announced that final year medical students would be able to enter the NHS workforce early to help reduce the burden on the health service. The following day, the Medical Schools Council issued a joint statement detailing the UK wide approach of managing this huge feat. On the 6th April, the General Medical Council began to provisionally register newly graduated medical students.

The rapidity of this response was not coincidental; it was informed by careful contingency planning and strong networks of communication. As the virus spread across the globe, medical schools observed how health systems in other countries were responding to the pandemic. Previous experience was also reflected upon to inform strategy. Emergency plans prepared for the influenza pandemic of 2009 set a precedent for responding to the current pandemic.  

Medical schools have been steadfast in their joint commitment to fight Covid-19, despite the disruption that this has had on delivering medical education. Fortunately, medical schools benefit from established collaborative networks, through the Medical Schools Council, that allow schools to work together on common issues. These networks were vital in organising a clear, national approach to manage the impact of the virus and in establishing working groups to shape policy relating to the outbreak.

Preparing a new workforce

Before graduating students, medical schools must present evidence to confirm that students have met the GMC’s required outcomes to graduate. For some schools, the majority of assessment had already been completed which meant they had sufficient information to graduate their students by early April. By the beginning of May, around 4500 newly graduated doctors applied for provisional registration. Choosing to join the health service months earlier than planned and in circumstances that have not been seen in peacetime is testament to these graduates commitment to the NHS, their colleagues and the public.

Thousands of students, across all years of study, are also engaged in volunteering within and outside the NHS. On the wards, they fulfil varied duties such as taking bloods, administering oxygen, inserting cannulas and assisting Covid-19 research. Equally important are the skills they have acquired through supporting patients, their families and NHS staff. Many medical students have organised non-clinical initiatives where they can assist NHS staff with their needs; caring for children, pets, delivering medicine and food parcels. Through these activities, students can improve their empathy and communication skills, which they will draw upon throughout their career in medicine.             

Maintaining standards in medical education

Parallel to the volunteer effort, medical students have adjusted to spending most of their days learning online. In medical schools, the transition to digital teaching has been sped up by the acquisition of new resources. The Medical Schools Council has sponsored two online learning platforms, Speaking Clinically and Capsule, for UK medical schools to use free of charge. The Council has also facilitated knowledge sharing through a UK mailing list of medical education experts. These resources are transforming traditional education methods by allowing students to self-direct and personalise their learning. Capsule, for instance, allows students to create their own quizzes to test their knowledge. Of those surveyed, 87% of medical students agreed that Capsule has helped them to achieve their results.

For the first time, medical students across all year groups have taken assessments remotely. UK medical schools are members of the MSC Assessment Alliance, which has for several years worked collaboratively to create and quality assure exam questions and produced a platform to deliver online assessments. This has proved a critical resource and has allowed access to high quality assessment materials that are mapped to the standards of the UK medical curriculum, at very short notice. These unprecedented circumstances have also allowed for innovation in assessment. Medical schools are exploring many different forms of assessment such as open book examinations. Psychometric analysis of data from such exam methods is already underway to explore how results compare with previous exams.

Working together is key

The speed at which UK medical schools have responded to the threat of Covid-19 highlights that collaboration, not just in times of crisis, is crucial. This continued collaboration must not be limited to just medical schools but extended to all stakeholders in the sector. It is also important that we harness as much data from this experience as we can. Further research into the impact of volunteering, online learning and assessment as well as student wellbeing is necessary.

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