As the Coronavirus pandemic gathered pace overseas, organisations across Australia began to restrict the movement of people.
For a large proportion of Melbourne and interstate universities it meant cancelling student placements, or replacing them with virtual learning.
Monash Rural Health Bendigo Director, Associate Professor Chris Holmes, felt his 85 medical students at Bendigo Health would have their in-person learning compromised.
But after conversations with the hospital executive and extensive work done by the Chief Medical Officer and her team, it was decided, given the fast-moving nature of the pandemic, to maintain but modify medical student placements to ensure the safety of all students.
“In the early days we didn’t know what was going to happen. We thought we could get overwhelmed or we’d have a whole heap of staff who are forced to go into quarantine and the medical students, in particular the senior medical students, in my opinion may have been seen as a surge workforce to support the hospital,” he said.
Students were kept away from high-risk areas. For example, medical students on placement in the emergency department were kept separate from the respiratory ED created to triage and treat suspected COVID-19 patients.
Other students pulled out of placements at Melbourne Hospitals came to Bendigo to assist with emerging models of care like telehealth, Chris said.
“A lot of medical students have been doing the prep work for telehealth consultations and helping maintain hand hygiene protocols,” he said.
Chris said all students were given the option to continue or withdraw from their placements and a handful decided to stay away from the hospital for personal reasons.
Monash Rural Health Bendigo recently surveyed a cohort of the medical students to see how the pandemic had impacted their education experience.
Approximately 60 per cent of the students surveyed felt being part of a rural cohort during COVID-19 had a positive impact on their clinical progress.
Ninety per cent of students felt safe continuing clinical placements at Bendigo Health and a number of students expressed a desire to do most of their medical training in Bendigo because of their experience during the pandemic.
A significant proportion of students were now looking at rural practice because of their experience at Bendigo Health during COVID-19, Chris said.
“Our feeling is and students have told us that they’re much more likely to consider a rural career as a result of the fact they’ve been supported and given education in this environment and recognized what’s achievable in rural centres,” he said.
“It ties in with other research we’ve done in that if people have a positive experience they are more likely to stay in the country.”
Chris said the strong relationship between Monash Rural Health Bendigo and Bendigo Health had been used as an example of how normal business can continue, albeit slightly modified, during a pandemic.
“Other hospitals might look at us and see you can build a system where you can maintain medical placements during a pandemic and you can have students feeling valued and positive about it,” he said.
“Bendigo will have built a decent reputation out of this and who knows what the impact of that will be in terms of attracting staff and attracting services in the long-term but I can’t see it as being a negative.”
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