Back in January of this year, many of us were still rooted in the routine of medical school, whether it was anatomy labs or biochemistry lectures. Little did we know that we would soon be experiencing a new normal – one with movement restrictions, daily death count announcements, and constant news briefings. However, despite the pressures faced by those in the healthcare sector, there are some very important lessons to be learnt from this pandemic; many things that medical school couldn’t have possibly taught us. Here are a few that I’ve learnt for myself:
1. The general public has a lot of love for the NHS
The British public have united on their front porches, balconies, and windows to clap for the NHS. There are NHS signs in shop displays, rainbows in house windows, and hair salons have been donating their spare hospital-grade surgical masks for hospitals short of personal protective equipment (PPE). All of us are incredibly grateful for the work the NHS does, and the work they have done is not going to be forgotten any time soon. As medical students, we are the future front-liners of the NHS, and sometimes, this may seem daunting. However, it’s important to remember how much people value, cherish and look up to healthcare professionals. While medical school teaches us how to look after patients, this pandemic has shown us just how much we mean to our patients. The truth is, the public has a great deal of love for the NHS; we can only hope to keep this close to our hearts and never forget this no matter how hard times get.
2. We’re a lot more helpful than we think we are
Extraordinarily, more than 500,000 people signed up to volunteer during the COVID-19 crisis. Often in medical school, we go on placements and simply observe. However, now medical students have found themselves in roles where they’ve been making very hands-on contributions, whether they serve as volunteer porters, healthcare assistants, or even assist in COVID-19 related research in labs. These days may pass, but in the future, it’s important to remember just how helpful we can be in the multidisciplinary team as medical students. This pandemic has given us a renewed sense of confidence. Though we should always stick to the limits of our own competence, we are valued members of a team and even the listening ear that we’re sometimes asked to provide can be extremely helpful and we should never forget that.
3. No matter how prepared you are, you can never truly be prepared for a global catastrophe
Although it can be argued that many lives have been already saved by the hard work of our NHS, doctors and other healthcare professionals have suffered huge shortages of equipment, with shocking tales of even movie sets donating equipment to the NHS and PPE being flown in from other countries. Though it’s unclear what the reason for this was, an important lesson that can be taken from this is the importance of preparation. As medical students, this is a good opportunity for us to evaluate how prepared we are for unforeseen circumstances. A good example of this is mental health; when life gets busy, it can be easy to prioritise getting work done over self-care. However, with many healthcare professionals reporting increased prevalence of symptoms of anxiety and depression, it’s important for us to take a step back and evaluate the resources and support systems we have to help us through challenging times.
4. Social inequalities are more prevalent than ever
Social inequalities play a huge role in health outcomes and COVID-19 has proved this once again. With our black and ethnic minority (BAME) patients more likely to contract coronavirus, this is a good opportunity for medical students to evaluate how equipped we are as future doctors to deal with the differences in presentation, prognosis and outcome based on ethnicity. Although medical school frequently teaches us that medicine isn’t a one-size-fits all scenario, rarely have the differences been so clear to see, with BAME patients being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. As future doctors it’s important for us to realise that these disparities exist and for us to tackle them head on.
5. With knowledge comes credibility, and with credibility comes great responsibility
We are used to seeing politicians on our TVs and social media, sometimes accompanied by financial experts. But recently, doctors are conducting interviews, giving advice and attending press briefings, and the public listen. We have a huge responsibility, even as medical students, to be good role models and to follow Government advice and to encourage others to follow it too. Medical students learn, to great depth, the nature of disease and how contamination and infection occur. Thus, it’s important for us to use the knowledge we have to be responsible citizens to help curb the spread of the disease.
Going into the new year, this pandemic is certainly going to affect how we learn medicine, but having lived through it first hand, it’s important for us to take the lessons we’ve learnt forward and use them to progress our journeys into becoming doctors.
By Anjana Lakshmi Narasimhan