Students prepare to enter health care workforce altered by pandemic

The pandemic has largely reduced local hospital residencies and other academic resources, leaving students in an uncertain position

Students studying to become health care professionals say after a year of hospitals lacking sufficient resources to fight the pandemic, they are struggling to gain the qualifications and experience to start their own careers in the field.

Students see the news of the heroic efforts of frontline healthcare workers. They talk to them in their classes, as many are faculty who still treat COVID-19 patients. But for many of the students, the pandemic has put a pause on their in-person classes and clinicals, forcing them to watch the crisis from the sidelines.

Overflowing hospitals limit residency programs

Many students in health care-related majors will typically begin applying to residency programs to start getting hands-on experience in their specialty before graduation, but overrun hospitals and medical centers can only allot so many resources to non-COVID-related affairs.

“This year, I wasn't even able to try to have an internship or get clinical experience, because non-essential personnel just haven't been allowed in,” said Jasmine Lopez, a sophomore studying biological sciences and global health.

Many hospitals have had to dramatically shorten, or in some cases, completely cut residency programs. This absence of in-person training is leaving these graduates an uncertain path ahead.

Lopez was halfway through her internship at Tempe St. Luke's Hospital last spring when the pandemic hit, cutting both her internship and credit hours short.

“As someone who's applying to medical school this cycle, it's definitely stressful because a lot of the opportunities that I was going to use to shadow never got to happen because of COVID,” said Christopher Hernandez, a junior studying biological sciences and global health.

Lauren Aldana, a senior studying nursing and president of the Barrett Student Nurses Organization, has felt the toll of limited in-person opportunities both in the classroom and workplace.

“Everyone always says if you become a nurse you'll instantly have a job waiting for you, and that's just not the case at the moment,” Aldana said. “It's been really hard for a lot of people because a lot of the hospitals have had to put all their resources towards COVID right now, which is totally understandable, but it's making that process of getting hired for us new grads a lot longer.”

The majority of Aldana's friends working in critical care and ICU positions, she said, have told her hospitals right now are short of two invaluable resources: time and money.

Although some hospitals are still offering residency programs, Aldana said many of these have been streamlined to include everything students need to know in sometimes as little as four months.

“The downside to that is just being a new grad learning all these skills and all these hospital policies so fast, and that could leave tons of room for error and problems as you start working on your own,” Aldana said.

Simulations to reality

In March, Aldana will begin a clinical rotation through a partnership with ASU and a local hospital, called a transition to practice. 

The goal of the externship is to prepare students to become potential employees, a practice more and more hospitals have adopted to combat medical staff shortages amid the pandemic.

While excited to get back into a hospital, Aldana said she can’t help but feel anxious about heading back after spending the majority of the past year clicking through simulations.

“I go into a hospital literally two weeks from now, and I'm terrified because I haven't been in one since February of last year,” Aldana said. “It's just that it's been hard to get those hands-on skills that our profession really relies on.”

When classes transitioned fully online last March, labs that would have been done in person were adapted into online simulations. Aldana recalled PowerPoints demonstrating how to set an IV pump and having to drag and drop virtual supply materials into the pump.

However, she said the University has taken precautions to ensure students are not assigned to COVID-19 units, which has eased her worries.

If an outbreak were to occur on their floor, Aldana said students would immediately move to another floor. She said students are also provided with N95 masks and other personal protective equipment.

Nobody knows how to live through a pandemic’

The pandemic has led some students to focus more of their attention on pre-med student groups, and others to create their own.

Omrao Emudianughe, a senior studying neurobiology and behavior with a focus in veterinary sciences, helps ease stress and stay connected with his pre-med peers through the Black Medical Student Association.

A member since his freshman year, Emudianughe said the club has been a support system for himself and other members, even in the absence of in-person meetings. He said the club’s mission to “recruit, retain and graduate” Black students in the medical field has empowered him in his work during these difficult times.

Emudianughe said members are constantly checking up on and helping one another, especially first-year students.

“I'd like to make sure they know that no matter what, we're not alone,” Emudianughe said. “I always try to make myself as accessible as possible, for help with homework, or just to talk.”

Like Emudianughe, Lopez also found a sense of community through a student organization. For her, it was through the Latino Medical Student Association, a new club she helped found, aimed to amplify Latino representation in the medical field.

Lopez was visiting her family in Germany during last year’s spring break when travel restrictions were put in place, leaving her to complete the rest of her freshman year in Germany.

“Nobody knows how to live through a pandemic, nobody knows how to live through quarantine,” Lopez said, describing the stress of being in a different country and being in isolation as “unimaginable.” 

“So much homework, so many due dates. I totally missed a whole chemistry exam, because I got the time difference wrong,” Lopez said. “I was giving presentations for class on Zoom at 3 a.m. in Germany.”

With Lopez's club being in its first year, the board didn’t have a pre-pandemic model to adjust from, and instead, had to build the club up from scratch.

“We just have to be that much stronger, and we have to search for opportunities that much more,” Lopez said. “But what comes with that is feeling empowered enough to say, I have every capacity to pave this path.” 


 Reach the reporter at sreyes23@asu.edu and follow @r_salma_ on Twitter.

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