Kaley Canova-Gaitros, OMS-IV, Kansas City University
I am sure that years from now, my classmates and I will all remember what rotation we were pulled from on March 17, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; I was in my final week of an ENT Surgery rotation. The next couple of weeks were full of speculation about how long the suspension of rotations would last, anxiety about shelf exams and the consequences of advancing to our fourth year of medical school, and concern for the safety of loved ones and the public.
As it would turn out, my rotations would not resume during the Spring 2020 semester. Although I had online requirements to fulfill to complete my third year, I found myself searching for some meaningful way to contribute my knowledge and skill set to help my community and give back to the healthcare profession that has given so much to me. While I knew safety had to be a top priority, and judicious use of PPE was imperative, I was also sure that there had to be some way medical students could get involved.
Enter: my former Family Medicine preceptor. I was lucky enough to be reconnected with her through my rotation site regional dean, and she graciously allowed a couple of students to volunteer at her outpatient clinic in April and May to help with tasks that did not require direct patient contact. One of my primary jobs while volunteering was phone triage. I helped answer patient questions about COVID-19 and screened incoming patients via phone to determine if isolation and testing would be needed. As cases began to rise nationwide, I also assisted front office staff with clinical decision making regarding which visits needed to be completed in the office and which appointments could be conducted via telemedicine.
Even though I was not directly involved in patient care, I certainly witnessed the effect of COVID-19 on this community clinic and its patients. Accommodating patient needs was a daily struggle, as this already busy clinic had to adjust its operational hours and number of patients seen to ensure that social distancing and sanitation protocols could be followed. PPE and COVID tests were scarce; PPE was kept secure and out of sight to be sure that it was appropriately used. Although we did not have any patients test positive for coronavirus in the office while I was volunteering, we did have some patients contact the clinic for outpatient follow up visits after hospital admissions for COVID. Interestingly, there was a large spike in the number of visits for problems related to depression and anxiety. Many patients were facing increased stressors regarding their health, the health of their community, increased time at home or as caregivers, and their economic futures.
While this was not a traditional clinical experience, I am so thankful that I found an opportunity to serve my community and learn more about the rapid operational changes that happen during a public health crisis. I know that becoming more comfortable with telemedicine will be pivotal for our generation of physicians, and I am grateful that I had the chance to participate in that process. More importantly, I will not soon forget the way that the clinic staff and physician rose to the challenge of making sure their patients were cared for. I am fortunate to have played a small part in such a passionate and effective healthcare team, and I hope to carry their lessons forward with me as a future physician. It could be us out there on the front lines of the next pandemic.