Constricted by COVID-19: USF Health

With the transition from in-person classes to online, some students said they are handling remote classes well through the use of Microsoft Teams and TeleHealth while others are having a harder time thinking about their futures. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

This story is a part of a continuing series that highlights the changes deans and professors had to make in order to successfully transition from face-to-face instruction to remote online coursework as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

During a time when many USF Health students would be in hospitals fulfilling their clinical rotations, COVID-19 has not only shifted classes, but the real-world experiences the major demands.

Many of these clinicals — a graduation requirement in which medical students spend time training in hospitals and clinics — and classes have transitioned online through tools like Microsoft Teams and TeleHealth, which allow students to fulfill requirements while they self-isolate at home.

While most students said they were able to find alternatives for clinicals and found the transition to be smooth, many said they are also uncertain about the future. 

Morsani College of Medicine

Bryan Bognar, vice dean for educational affairs for the Morsani College of Medicine (MCOM) said the transition initially focused on preserving all nonclinical activities.

“By the close of business on [March] 17, we had told all our medical students, predominantly third and fourth years, that they would have to cease their clinical activities,” Bognar said.

“We also were simultaneously quickly pivoting all of the other activities we do — lectures, small groups, case-based conferences, all the things that make up the medical school program across the four years — and [putting] those online.”

MCOM collaborated with Microsoft last October to announce the creation of the first “Medical School of Innovation,” which required new software — a step that Bognar said was essential to having a smooth transition to online.

“We spent a lot of time and energy migrating to Microsoft Teams, which has really been a savior for us,” Bognar said. “With it, we’ve been able to pivot fairly seamlessly.”

Barbara Laren Durden, a third-year graduate student in the college, said the shift to online has been a positive experience this semester but worries about the lingering effects next year.

“It’s actually been a great transition, but that’s because I am mostly a homebody to begin with,” Durden said. “I know that many of us have been enjoying the free time we’ve had since, before this, we were working 12 hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six depending on the rotation.

“But I also know that some are worried about what this will mean for us taking our next board exams [United States Medical Licensure Exam], doing away rotations for residency, interviews and matching next year.”

Match Day, the day where medical students find out which location they will be doing their residencies at, was on March 20 this semester.

“They’re all matched [this semester], they all have a spot for July 1,” Bognar said.

Niharika Baviriseaty, a classmate of Durden, said she believes the shift was executed well but is worried about the uncertainties the summer semester will bring.

“A lot of our clerkship material for third-[year] medical students has been online modules,” Baviriseaty said. “The third year of medical school is when we spend most of our time in clinics and hospitals, so the modules are just to decrease our time when we go back to real-life clinics. It’s definitely stressful given the uncertainty.”

These worries are also at the front of Bognar’s mind, as he said making sure students graduate on time is a priority.

“Our fourth-year [students], thankfully, are really just steps away from graduation,” Bognar said. “[Students will still graduate] by May 12.”

May 9 is the USF virtual commencement and May 12 is when all grades are finalized for the semester. 

College of Public Health

The online environment is nothing new to the College of Public Health (CPH), according to Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Janice C. Zgibor. 

“We had, I believe, about a third or so of our classes online already, and a couple of our degrees completely online,” Zgibor said. “So the online environment was something the College of Public Health was very familiar and very comfortable with.”

Using Microsoft Teams and Canvas, Zgibor said CPH has required all course readings and assignments to be available online, and all staff have transitioned smoothly.

“We’ve worked with the faculty and we’re really pleased everyone made the switch,” Zgibor said. “We’re really looking forward to teaching in the future online as well, we’re really lucky.”

Jenny Medema, a public health major and nutritional sciences minor — a minor within the college — said she hasn’t been affected by the transition

“The whole nutritional sciences minor is online, as well as several of the public health curriculum courses being online only,” Medema said. “So, as a PH major [and a] nutrition minor, I haven’t felt much of a difference.”

Only two programs have what Zgibor calls “true clinical experiences:” the genetic counseling program and the dietetics program. Both majors, according to Zgibor, have been able to switch to remote work to finish out the semester.

“No one was really held up from graduating based on being pulled from the field.”

Beyond classes, Zgibor said CPH is also working to partner students with the Florida Department of Health in COVID-19 efforts. 

“[The Florida Department of Health] reached out to the deans of the College of Public Health in the state university system to get volunteers, particularly in epidemiology, health, education and behavioral health, to support their efforts across the state,” Zgibor said.

“I sent the call out for it, and by the next day we had over 200 responses. I don’t have the latest update on it, but about a week after we sent out those names, at least 60 of our faculty and students had been hired by the state to work on the response.” 

Locally, the college has also worked alongside the Pinellas and Hillsborough County Health Departments, sending them student volunteers.

As students and faculty work alongside officials to help quell the pandemic, Zgibor said that even after classes resume on campus, there will be a large adjustment period.

“I think it’ll take some time because we’re all coming from such different places these days. We’re all going through something now that no one has ever gone through.”

COVID-19 Clinicals

While COVID-19 continues to affect the status of classes, many USF Health students are taking advantage of the opportunity to learn more about the pandemic and how they can apply their skills to the real world.

One such application comes from the “Coco Clinic,” a partnership between the MCOM, the Florida Department of Health and “local authorities,” according to Bognar.

“This is a situation where patients have tested positive for COVID-19. They’re not felt to need hospitalization, but need very close at-home monitoring,” Bognar said. “Our students are able to participate, under supervision with physicians, in the monitoring of patients day by day.”

The clinic, held through virtual software TeleHealth, allows students to get clinical hours in while getting hands-off virtual experience in dealing with the outbreak.

According to numerous students, there aren’t enough of these alternative clinicals to give to every student, leaving many students to miss out on hands-on experience and hone their skills in person. 

“Not having this time to experience direct patient contact will leave many of us with having 2-4 months without even talking to a patient,” said Kersten Pray, a senior majoring in nursing. 

Standardized Patients, a practice where individuals act out having a medical condition allowing students to practice things like getting their medical history and physicals, has now shifted to a TeleHealth “virtual model,” using the same individuals but being monitored through a mock TeleHealth session. 

This allows students to continue to get real-world experience even if they aren’t able to get into these monitoring programs.

“Through this type of technology, students can feel the experience of interacting with patients,” Bognar said. “We’ve done hundreds of virtual patient encounters for students, which I think is a real point of pride.”