Healthcare students across the world are uniquely overwhelmed with the challenges that have come with COVID-19. Face-to-face courses shifted to online learning platforms, laboratory experiences converted to tele-laboratory experiences, clinical placements were canceled, and in some cases graduations were delayed from the inability to meet minimum or certification requirements.

Despite all these challenges for students and their educational experience, COVID-19 has done something else: better prepared them for their future in healthcare.

As students experiencing the global effects of COVID-19, these healthcare novices are being prepared now for unexpected shifts in their future professions. They gained experience in telehealth and using virtual platforms to connect and care for patients. They learned to adapt as healthcare situations change. They see the value and essential service of healthcare workers. They have become better patient advocates and communicators. 

In January, Andrew Bringhurst, a student in the Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) program at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions (RMUoHP), was in Idaho for his second-to-last semester of clinical rotations. With his clinical rotation in general surgery, there seemed little concern about COVID-19 at the time. But as the weeks went by, concern grew as the pandemic unfolded across the world-and Bringhurst’s clinical rotations were eventually canceled entirely.

For Bringhurst, being in the clinic at the onset of COVID-19 was a learning experience in itself.

After his rotation in general surgery, Bringhurst moved into cardiology. “Each week, there were more guidelines and more things we had to do.” After cardiology, Bringhurst moved to a women’s health setting, where the new guidelines made work-life challenging. “I had to wear an N95 mask all the time, which is hard while delivering a baby because you can’t breathe.”

Aside from safety precautions, Bringhurst quickly learned that as a healthcare provider, he needed to know what was going on for his patients and communicate more frequently. “Every morning, I had to read about COVID-19 updates because clients would ask about it.” He learned that as a physician assistant (PA), he is the patient’s advocate. With COVID-19, “PAs I was with during my rotations didn’t alter their job. But they did add a lot to patient education. They talked about the risks, what we do know, and what we don’t know. The PAs were particularly useful at talking at the patient level and helping them make decisions that they needed to make.”

As COVID-19 worsened in the United States, clinical rotations were affected across the country. In Idaho, there were relatively low rates of COVID-19 spread, so the hospital continued Bringhurst’s placement. However, other students in clinical rotations were pulled and administrators would see Bringhurst and ask, “Are you still here?” It was a strange time for Bringhurst, but one he says he is grateful to have experienced.

Like other universities, RMUoHP eventually canceled all clinical placements. Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Dr. Mark Horacek explained the difficult situation was due to the “health and welfare of our students and the University community as a whole, characteristics of COVID-19, recommendations from programmatic accreditors, as well as the health and welfare of the patients with whom our students interact.”

For Bringhurst, the waiting only made him more excited to graduate and practice. “It just makes me want to get a license and get out there and practice faster. Having rotations and having them taken away makes you appreciate it even more.”

The whole experience helped Bringhurst realize the importance of being the best healthcare provider he can be. “COVID-19 has reaffirmed the need to be both an adaptable component and firm anchor to the healthcare system as a whole. 

To me, this means first being patient with change. Numerous recommendations and guidelines seem to be changed on a daily basis. News stories and social media further complicate and confuse patient perceptions.” He adds firmly, “Our healthcare system needs providers who are consistently keeping their knowledge up-to-date and  implementing recommendations while simultaneously acting as steady anchors of information for patients we serve.”

Luckily, Bringhurst had enough clinical rotations and placement experiences whereby COVID-19 didn’t push back his graduation. He’ll graduate this August and take the licensure exam, well-equipped and ready to work as a physician assistant.

–By Stephanie Bentley, Institutional Marketing & Communication Manager