What will training look like in the post-pandemic era?

I remember my first week of internship very clearly – I was a part of my first code blue as a physician. Later that week, I had to have a goals of care discussion with a patient who had been in the hospital for 3 weeks (longer than I had been a doctor at that point). These were new experiences that I was eager for, but I was fortunate to have my routine that maintained a sense of normalcy for me, very much like naptime to my toddler. I was diligent in pre-rounding and seeing all my patients before my attending showed up, and would have formed a plan for their care before 8 AM.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing here in the US, a lot of these things that were part of my routine as an intern suddenly went to the wayside. At my institution, interns were instructed not to pre-round on patients such as to minimize contact and potential infection transmission. Family meetings could only be conducted via telephone, or in some cases, video conference. Code blues were no longer a mad dash to the patient’s room, but rather, different hospital wards had different teams, such that a provider taking care of COVID+ patients does not go to a code blue for non-COVID patients and vice versa.

Rounding on these revamped inpatient teams has been…interesting to say the least. I can’t tell you the amount of times I or an attending will ask the patient a question about the patient and the response is “I don’t know, I haven’t seen them.” It’s great that interns are more comfortable admitting they don’t know something rather than lie about it, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel a sense of lack of ownership on their behalf.

Everybody will tell you that intern year sucks, and it’s rough, and they would hate to go back and do it again. But many people will also admit that they are impressed with how much they have learned and managed to push themselves beyond their perceived level of comfort during that time frame. I didn’t particularly enjoy coming to the hospital early each day I was on an inpatient service just to see my patients and review their charts, or going to the patient’s room for the umpteenth time in a day, but there have been a number of times where something meaningful was gleaned, and my ability to think critically and manage patients independently grew a little that day.

The thing that bothers me the most about these precautions is the huge change to goals of care discussions and family meetings. The logic behind it – minimizing spread of infection and exposures – makes sense and I agree with it completely. But it’s hard to develop good rapport with an individual only over the phone, and similarly, it’s difficult to comfort another human being digitally. There’s something about the physical presence of another person, the eye contact, and even the slightest gestures, that can help make the worst day of someone’s life a little less painful.

It’s quite fortunate that these protocol changes came more than halfway through the academic year, when interns at least have a handle on what things to look out for and have developed their own sense of alarm from glancing at the chart. I can’t imagine starting intern year where I only physically interact with “my” patients during rounds with my attending, or via telephone, unless there is some kind of emergency.

On the other hand, this is accelerating our embrace of telemedicine on the outpatient side, which is good for both patients and providers in many cases, and from my anecdotal experience, has resulted in a lot fewer “no-shows.” Interns are afforded more sleep, and arguably learning to pay more attention to vital signs changes and lab value changes – or at least they’re getting a better sense of when they should actually get up and go see the patient (sometimes at the urging of their senior 😊). This could simply be an inevitable step in the evolution of medical education that was accelerated by the pandemic, but I can’t say I feel that all these changes should be here to stay.

Whether it was fumbling through morning rounds and trying to formulate a new plan based on overnight events, or developing my emotional intelligence and flexing that empathy muscle, these were formative experiences for me during my intern year that have significantly contributed to my development as a clinician. These could just be the ramblings of a dinosaur, much akin to the older physicians talking about their paper charts, fibrinolytics and 48 hour calls, but I do hope some of these changes can be undone soon, for the sake of our trainees as well as our patients and their families.

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