The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown have impacted the McGill community at large. But for students and instructors in the Faculty of Medicine’s health professions programs, the health crisis has presented a unique set of challenges.
While most Montrealers stayed home and worked or studied remotely during the spring, health care professionals continued to go into work every day—with many of McGill’s students, trainees and faculty members among those on the frontlines.
“Many of our students and clinical faculty are working nurses and they were called back to work full time,” say Amanda Cervantes and Katherine Logue, co-chairs of the Technology Committee at the Ingram School of Nursing.
Given this unavoidable and unprecedented interruption to the Winter term, Cervantes, Logue and their colleagues were determined to support students in completing their semester. They quickly rallied to find solutions that would allow for more flexible learning—solutions they continue to build on in preparation for the Fall term—which included transitioning courses outside of the clinical setting from the classroom to Zoom.
“With an abundance of humility, honesty and oodles of communication, the faculty managed to convert to remote instruction for most of our courses over a matter of a couple of days,” they remember. “As nurses, we all understood the gravity of the situation and the importance of helping our students, especially graduating students, complete their semester.”
Quick and creative solutions
“Our quick start meant that we needed to hurriedly find some workarounds to get us going right away,” Cervantes and Logue add. “So the whole School came together as a team and frankly, we got creative!”
At the undergraduate level, the School allowed students to complete the semester based on work they’d already finished. For graduate students, individual instructors worked with them to extend work submission deadlines, among other things, to help them balance their work, school and home responsibilities.
For instructors who had to commit more hours to their clinical work, the School made sure everything could be reorganized, taught and graded in a timely manner.
An honest and human approach
For the Fall semester, the Ingram School of Nursing will apply lessons from the Winter term to help students, instructors and staff make the remote learning experience as enriching as possible.
“We learned that being honest and humble with our students goes a long way in helping them to be active, engaged participants in the learning we’re trying to achieve” say Cervantes and Logue.
“We also learned that being honest about our home situations, like letting people see glimpses of our kids, pets and unwashed dishes, made for very authentic experiences,” they add. “We hope it helped people feel we are all in this together, and that all of our lives have been disrupted and are imperfect.”
Speech-language therapy goes virtual
At the School of Communication Sciences and Disorder (SCSD), meanwhile, the in-house teaching clinic was outfitted with new equipment, enabling services to be delivered completely via tele-health this summer and beyond.
Clients, students and supervisors all connect remotely from their own homes. In this way, speech-language pathology supervisors can continue to offer services to clients and clinical placements to students, maintaining physical distancing.
SCSD students are also providing tele-health services to school-aged children from Kahnawake, allowing at-risk youth from an Indigenous community to continue to receive needed speech-language pathology services while their school is closed.
Going remote to build clinical skills
The School of Physical & Occupational Therapy rapidly adapted its university-based courses to remote learning. But clinical education required major re-thinking to meet accreditation and regulatory standards, while minimizing direct patient contact and maintaining physical distancing.
The Physical Therapy clinical education team was able to quickly organize tele-health placements and training for students beginning training at a large physiotherapy clinic franchise. The team plans to leverage this experience to develop future tele-rehabilitation placements in McGill-affiliated clinics in both the public and private sectors.
Physiotherapy student Brandon Azimov says he believes tele-rehab placements like the one he did this spring provide valuable experience. “I feel tele-rehab will be here to stay, not only because of COVID-19, but also for patients who live far away from physiotherapists.”
The Occupational Therapy program, for its part, developed a hybrid clinical placement course focusing on three practice themes: Tele-health and remote service, Knowledge Translation (educational tools) and Emerging Roles for Occupational Therapists in Quebec.
Like Azimov, Occupational Therapy student Kimberly McBain found the tele-health placements to be a positive experience. “Although, initially, students were disappointed to not experience a typical clinical stage, I believe that our cohort, after graduation, will go into the workforce as stronger clinicians. The pandemic opened our eyes to what the loss of occupations can look like globally, and how we as healthcare professionals are responsible for responding with our critical thinking and adaptive techniques.”
All in this together
With the pandemic putting a temporary halt to clinical placements for undergraduate medical students as well, students banded together to help both the local and health care communities. Students launched a bevy of initiatives, from providing resources to the elderly and refugees to fundraising for homeless shelters, collecting and distributing personal protective equipment and volunteering in long-term care facilities.
One such medical student-led outreach project is the Teletutor Outreach Initiative, launched in late March to provide free online tutoring to the children of frontline healthcare workers, unable to homeschool as they face one of the busiest and most stressful periods of their careers.
“We had just been pulled out of hospitals and it was hard knowing so many people were on the frontlines while we were home and not contributing in some capacity,” the student volunteers remember. “So we created a Google form to gauge medical student interest for online tutoring and many people volunteered.”
From there, they created a form for parents to fill in, sending it to friends and colleagues working in the health-care system, and immediately started receiving requests.
The initiative, started with just a couple of students, has grown to include 70 volunteers at the most recent count. They tutor young people from Grade 1 of primary school to the CEGEP level in subjects ranging from math, English and French to art and the sciences, mostly via Skype or Zoom.
The tutors volunteer between one to five hours of their time every week, using resources provided by parents or school board guidelines and workbooks found online.
“As medical students, being stuck at home during the pandemic has made many of us feel like we’re not helping out to the best of our abilities,” they say. “But through this tutoring, we’re able to assist healthcare workers who are on the frontlines every day.”
Preparing the way forward
As of June, students in the Faculty of Medicine’s health professions programs began to reintegrate into hospitals and other health care facilities for clinical placements and clerkships.
The Faculty’s leadership team is now in the final planning phases for in-person clinical skills training and simulation education on campus. These activities will begin this summer for medicine, nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy and speech-language pathology, and will complement the courses that are delivered remotely.