Learning to learn on the front lines

In a global pandemic, the spotlight on medicine students is only getting brighter

Even in a normal year, medicine is undoubtedly regarded as one of the most difficult yet highly esteemed courses at Trinity. A 5-year course that typically requires at least 730 points to get a place in, the course encompasses both theory-based teachings and hands-on experience working with patients in hospitals. Add in a global pandemic, Dublin’s move to Level 3 of lockdown and Trinity’s subsequent push for online teaching, and medicine students have found themselves in an unprecedented situation this year. 

Typically, the first two years of the course are dedicated to classroom-based learning. Between lectures held about three times a day, small group tutorials twice a week, and labs once to twice a week, students could be found on campus with upwards of 28 contact hours per week. This year, however, much of this has moved online through Zoom, Panopto or Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. “Lectures which are normally given live in the Trinity centres in the various hospitals have been moved online,” explained Isabel Waters, a third year medicine student. “However, since students are dispersed between hospitals throughout the year, all lectures had to be recorded anyway so students on different sites could watch them in their own time.”

Like any course, online teaching comes with its own set of challenges, including tutorial teachers having to find ways to work around the 40-minute time limit on Zoom for live classes. “While workarounds have been used to make meetings longer than the 40-minute free standard, this should arguably never have been a problem in the first place considering that even student bodies such as the CSC have been able to obtain Zoom licences for societies,” said a third year medicine student. “While this is under the understanding of a potential partnership between Zoom and Trinity College Dublin, approving of this before term started given that a pandemic doesn’t exactly go away within six months may have been wise.”

The last three years of the course are largely spent off campus as students go on placement, gaining hands-on experience by working in hospitals such as St. James’ Hospital, Tallaght Hospital, Naas General Hospital, Peamount Hospital and the Blackrock Clinic. Students also have the opportunity to attend on-site lectures and tutorials given by clinicians in these hospitals and normally have access to all parts of the hospital, given they fill in their logbook correctly. 

This year, however, placement will look very different as a result of the increased safety regulations surrounding hospitals. The school has adopted a “pod system”, where students are divided into groups of 12 and are only allowed to interact with these groups while on rotation. Students will be assigned to a specific ward and are not permitted to leave that ward unless accompanying a patient. Additionally, the course has increased the number of rotations from 6.5 to 8 to give students time to self isolate. “Placements are both more and less strictly monitored than before,” said the third year student. “We are both spread throughout the hospital and told to stay within our parts of the hospital, so students staying in wards will likely not have much communication with any student who will be in theatre or in other parts of the hospital, like the acute medical assessment unit.”

Though the restrictions have certainly presented additional challenges for students on placement, overall many are grateful to still have the opportunity, particularly in such an uncertain time. “If things were to develop to the point where medical students would be removed from placement, it would delay students’ graduation, because the Medical Council requires that a certain number of weeks of rotations be completed in order to qualify,” explained Caoimhe O’Reilly-Massey, a third year medicine student from Dublin. “This year is my first clinical year so I’ve never been on placement before now, which probably makes it easier for me to adjust to the changes made to placement than for the years above who had gotten used to the previous layout and now have to readjust to a whole load of new rules and regulations.”

 “For me at least there’s a lingering sense of uncertainty as to what will change about our course and what will happen to us as students in the next few years to come.” 

Another aspect of the course that has changed this year is the structure of the course itself, which will now be split into three terms, with the first spanning the Michaelmas term across three weeks and the second two making up Hilary term. Though Trinity has made it a priority to establish some sense of certainty, the constantly changing situation has made that a nearly impossible task. “For me at least there’s a lingering sense of uncertainty as to what will change about our course and what will happen to us as students in the next few years to come,” said Caoimhe. “It definitely seems to me that there’s a lot that hasn’t been planned for.”

 “To some extent starting as a student within the pandemic will likely make subsequent years seem easy in contrast.” 

Despite the school’s best efforts, constant changes in both the government regulations and Trinity’s response to them has caused widespread confusion for students on many issues. “While the school of medicine is clearly trying to accommodate every part of a normal year while including Covid precautions, more, communication surrounding timetables for lectures [which are only received weekly] and particularly in the past when students were initially ordering scrubs, would have been appreciated,” said the third year student. “To some extent starting as a student within the pandemic will likely make subsequent years seem easy in contrast.”

“It’s also brought to the forefront how important the work of healthcare professionals is in making a difference in times like these.” 

Though the changing guidelines have created a more intimidating environment for students to study medicine, the global increased focus on the sacrifice of, and need for, essential workers such as healthcare professionals has caused many students in medicine to reflect on the importance of their course, this year more than ever. “It’s definitely made me a lot more wary of being on clinical placement, especially as case numbers have been rising again recently,” said Caoimhe. “On the other side of things it’s also brought to the forefront how important the work of healthcare professionals is in making a difference in times like these. As students we get to learn in real time how protocols and precautions have changed in the hospitals since the beginning of the pandemic, and we’ll see how this changes healthcare permanently.”

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy

Olivia Flaherty-Lovy is the Features Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of English Studies.