After six weeks of rigorous studying, first-year medical students at the University of Arizona College of Medicine have completed their first course — the Foundations Block. This rigorous six-week endeavor lays the grounds for the study of medicine. Central to this achievement is the advent of Zoom in medical education, a response to the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
For many students, starting their medical education under these circumstances has brought many firsts. The UA College of Medicine — Tucson class of 2024 is the first class to begin their medical education predominantly online, the first class to begin patient interactions through telemedicine and the first class to enter medical school during a pandemic.
As expected, these obstacles have forced students to adapt the way they engage with course material, their colleagues and the world of medicine at large. So, how are our newest MedCats doing so far?
“It’s been weird. I honestly think it’s going a lot better than I expected though,” said Katie Pulling, a first-year medical student at UACOM-T.
Jarrod Rulney, another member of the class of 2024, elaborated on Pulling’s statements and said “Zoom makes things a little more difficult with everything being online. I am missing the personal experience of certain things, but [school is] going very well considering the current situation.”
Both Pulling and Rulney echoed a common sentiment amongst this year’s cohort: simply put, things have been strange but much better than expected.
Still, there is some uncertainty, especially regarding the impact of transitioning to online classes. This shift has been easier for some more and more difficult for others. Michael Sjoquist — a former employee of Banner University Medical Center — Tucson who is now starting his first year of medical school — explained how this transition has been unusual for him.
“When I was in undergrad I studied as a group. I had a small group of 3 or 4 folks and they were all brilliant. We had a very disciplined schedule and taught each other a lot. Zoom has made it difficult to make those connections … There are definitely benefits to Zoom. It is definitely efficient, but I miss the in-person classes,” Sjoquist said.
Others, such as Pulling, have found the online format more fitting for their circumstances.
“I think I have personally benefited from online schooling because I am able to stay at home with my husband. [This] gives me closer access to my support system. I definitely think that I am an odd case. Having been an online student for two master’s degrees prior to [medical school], this [online format] is way better than either of my other experiences with online school,” Pulling said.
For other first-year MedCats, like Andrew Fortin, participating in in-person lectures is key to learning, especially when it comes to group activities.
“I was one of those people that always went to lecture. So, this was definitely not what I had in mind for medical school. When it comes to individual lectures, I am fine with online classes. I have the hardest time with group work that we would be typically done in person … this has made [the situation] more socially isolating,” Fortin said.
Rulney, Sjoquist and Fortin all highlight another concern that the class of 2024 has had with online education: the lack of social interactions and their impact on student wellbeing.
Many of these limits have to do with the COVID-19 social-distancing restrictions implemented by UACOM-T. Students recognize that these protocols are necessary to keep them, the faculty and the community safe. However, they also acknowledge that online interactions can never replace making connections in person.
“A virtual setting can get exhausting after a while and for me, there is a big difference between meeting someone online and meeting someone in person,” Rulney said. He further explains that he is grateful for the incredible effort faculty to have made to connect with students. “I am sure that it is unfortunate for [the faculty] too to not be able to have in-person interactions."
This is not an isolated incident. Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has directly impacted medical education at many institutions and has led to an increase in anxiety and depression amongst medical students. In response, UACOM-T has made significant efforts to augment mental health services for their students.
Most recently, the College of Medicine Mental Health Services hired Amanda Labagnara, a professional mental health counselor and therapist specializing in depression, anxiety and trauma. Her addition to the Mental Health Services team and their continued efforts to advocate for mental health awareness highlights the school’s commitment to student wellbeing, an encouraging sign for the class of 2024.
The pandemic is also putting a spotlight on the importance of service in the medical profession.
“It is in times of crisis [that] we realize how important the responders to that crisis are,” Rulney said. “To me, the current situation is a motivating factor to become a [physician].”
Despite all these hurdles, it is clear Pulling, Rulney, Sjoquist and Fortin are all grateful for the opportunity to pursue a medical education at UACOM-T.
“[It] is a privilege to be in this medical school. [We] have the opportunity to be some of the most educated people on the planet,” Fortin said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented the UACOM-T class of 2024 with a unique set of obstacles. Instead of shrinking before these obstacles, the class has risen to meet them, displaying optimism, motivation and plenty of grit. If any class has the capacity to overcome these odds, Sjoquist said that he believes it is this class.
“Every time I have a conversation with our class I am inspired. I’ve never felt like I belonged in a place more than I do with our class. [We] get to wake every day and receive not just a world-class education but an education that only a very few people get to receive. I could not feel more fortunate," Sjoquist said.
Follow The Daily Wildcat on Twitter