Physicians are some of the professionals most impacted during the COVID-19 pandemic – with health care systems overwhelmed and more doctors than ever needed on the front lines, it’s not surprising that the medical school experience is changing. Schools are seeing changes in their curriculum, a move to offer more virtual coursework, and an increasing number of students seeking enrollment – which means that whether you’re a new medical student or a recent graduate, med school today might not look the same as it did a few years ago, and neither will the next generation of doctors. Whether you’re considering medical school or you’ve already graduated, here are some things to know about becoming a doctor in a pandemic:
- It’s Increasing Demand
With more doctors being called up to the front lines of medicine, working longer hours, and experiencing symptoms of burnout, it can seem surprising that medical schools are facing so many new applicants. But students are seeking enrollment in larger numbers – medical schools in Canada and the United States have seen 20-30% increases in applications for the class of 2025, while the average increase in previous years was only around 3%.
While there are no official explanations for this influx, medical school officials suggest a combination of factors – the additional time students now have thanks to the introduction of virtual coursework, changes to the medical school application process, a more limited job market leading to a greater interest in graduate education, and the emergence of ‘frontline heroes’ and doctors in public-facing roles who are seen dealing with the worst of the pandemic could all be reasons why students are applying to medical school in greater numbers.
So what does this mean for doctors? Some physicians suggest that this influx in applications is perfect timing – research suggests that up to 20% of physicians are considering early retirement as a result of pandemic burnout, which has only increased in the past year. And although competition might be steeper, there will always be enough spots for top applicants, with medical schools suggesting potential students not delay their medical school applications because of the surge.
- Coursework is Changing
Despite the need for frontline doctors, many medical students were pulled from their clinical rotations as a result of the pandemic. Not only has this had an impact on a doctor’s level of experience come graduation, it could potentially impact their ability to choose a specialty and a city to practice – medical electives, which give many doctors a chance to visit hospitals or clinics where they hope to do their residency, have been reduced or excluded in many provinces. In the US, 74% of medical students felt that their medical education was disrupted by the pandemic – although 72% of them report being able to find meaningful medical experiences elsewhere, such as through volunteering.
While it’s not possible to understand the impact of the pandemic on these newly graduated doctors just yet, many schools have offered more flexible deadlines or virtual options for networking with residents in other provinces. And in some ways, the pandemic might be a good thing, since it has allowed new doctors to see (and prepare for) unprecedented changes in the healthcare environment, as well as focus more on the proper use of personal protective equipment and spend more time with their patients.
- It’s Creating a New Type of Doctor
While the old model of medical school taught physicians to engage with and retain a large body of knowledge, the American Medical Association suggests that the pandemic has forced a new model – one that sees the physician as a problem solver, using their medical knowledge to solve a variety of unique and ambiguous challenges. This includes the challenges inherent in a global pandemic, with many schools offering coursework or elective options that focus on public health, which could be used to help in other aspects of healthcare (such as the opioid crisis) once the pandemic concludes.
Although the pandemic brings its own set of challenges, doctors of all ages being forced to learn and apply so much new information on the job could mean that the next generation of doctors might end up being more flexible and informed than any in history – which is a good thing not just for doctors, but for the medical system as a whole.