COVID-19 shaping students to be well-rounded doctors

Posted on Monday, September 21, 2020

Heidi Li meeting with co-lead Simran Aggarwal over a Zoom call

By Michelle Read

Heidi Li is convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping better doctors despite medical students missing out on traditional means of learning.

The very limitations brought on by the pandemic have propelled students to create their own opportunities to supplement their learning. They’re adding to their skill sets—and becoming better doctors in the process.

Ms. Li, a third-year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine, and fellow MD student Adrian Bailey put forth their thoughts to the journal Academic Medicine, which published their letter to the editor over the summer.

Ms. Li has co-led two initiatives to battle the challenges of COVID over the last several months:

COVID Performers, which she co-leads with uOttawa alumnus and Western University MD candidate David Zheng as well as Western MD candidate Alexandra Hillyer, connects musically talented medical students with health-care institutions to bring residents the joy of music through virtual performances. “In offering an escape from pain, sadness, disability and grief, performers strengthen their humanistic qualities such as empathy, building relationships and connecting on an emotional level,” she says.

HCP Outreach, which she co-leads with MD2022 candidate Simran Aggarwal, rallies med students to assist physicians in navigating increased work-life demands.

“We’re developing collaboration and leadership skills as well as deepening our understanding of the fundamental impact of maintaining personal wellness as future physicians,” Ms. Li says. “We’ve received many heart-warming messages, including ‘seeing efforts like this restores my faith in humanity.’”

Read the full text of Ms. Li and Mr. Bailey’s letter below.

Medical Education Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: New Perspectives for the Future

Heidi Oi-Yee Li, third-year medical student, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa
Adrian M.J. Bailey, second-year medical student, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa

To the editor:

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many medical schools worldwide cancelled clinical rotations, resulting in the loss of essential learning opportunities. Subsequently, many medical students reported significant anxiety and stress stemming from the uncertainty surrounding their education and the impact of these changes on their future careers. To address this problem, we recommend looking beyond missed clinical learning opportunities and reflecting on the true purpose of medical education—namely, to train well-rounded physicians.

Across the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, medical students like ourselves mobilized to organize initiatives to support health care workers, community members, and public health efforts. Understanding the importance of public health promotion and education, medical students assisted in contact tracing and public health counselling. Advocating for vulnerable populations, they provided support to seniors through virtual companionship programs and grocery services. Noticing the struggle of frontline health care workers to find personal support, students collaborated to provide free childcare, pet care, and run errands. Observing a shortage of personal protective equipment, they collected these items to donate to various health care institutions. Recognizing the vast amount of information on COVID-19, students conducted knowledge translation to create accessible documents for the public. Understanding the urgent need for research, they applied their lab skills to contribute to research initiatives.

Through this work, we and our fellow medical students learned that medical education does not solely rely on classes and rotations. Rather, it is lifelong learning in different environments and circumstances, and this is true among medical schools worldwide and is applicable beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, the CanMEDS framework describes 7 competencies that guide all learning objectives in medical education. Notably, 5 of the 7 CanMEDS roles focus not on the knowledge physicians possess but on the essential skills they exemplify: collaborator, leader, health advocate, professional, and communicator. Developing these roles is fundamental in the journey to becoming well-rounded future physicians, and we are, in effect, pursuing them in our contributions to the COVID-19 initiatives we described above.

Despite the uncertainty of when formal clinical learning will resume, we recommend that students seek unorthodox ways to continuously advance their education outside the clinical sphere. Doing so will inspire them to continue to learn and to become more compassionate and well-rounded future physicians. The incorporation of community volunteering into medical education and its educational value are unexpected blessings from the COVID-19 pandemic and should be implemented into the traditional medical curriculum to enrich learning, even in the post-pandemic world.


Main photo: Heidi Li (right) meets with co-lead Simran Aggarwal about HCP Outreach over a Zoom call.

Headshots of Heidi Li, David Zheng and Simran Aggarwal

L-r: Heidi Li, David Zheng and Simran Aggarwal.


A resident in a long-term care home watches a performance on a laptop computer

A long-term care resident in Ottawa enjoys a virtual performance by the COVID Performers. Photo credit : Heidi Li


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