Lessons From COVID-19 Volunteering- Medical Students' Perspective
Corresponding Authors: Prasant Gurung, Ann Panjikkaran & Sophie Lee
With clinical placements put on hold during the pandemic, medical students across the country have responded in various ways to contribute to the crisis. We have personally been part of our local COVID-19 volunteering scheme, a medical-student initiative supporting the NHS during the pandemic. There are nearly 400 medical students signed up with the volunteering scheme in our local area. Students have taken up roles in general practice (GP) surgeries and hospital wards and are also helping with providing childcare for healthcare workers, supporting care homes as well as vaccine trials. We volunteer at a local GP surgery and our role involves telephoning patients who are clinically vulnerable to COVID-19 due to patients’ comorbidities and are therefore advised to stay at home to "shield" from the virus.
We ensure that patients are managing during the pandemic – that they are shielding safely at home and that they have help obtaining their groceries and regular medications. We refer them onto other community services where appropriate and answer their queries whilst working within our competencies. Despite clinical placements being cancelled, we have found an alternative opportunity to converse with patients. We listen to patients’ appreciation for healthcare workers as well as their frustrations, and we also learn to navigate more difficult conversations. For example, some elderly patients who live alone are particularly grateful for our call. We listen as patients share their new-found hobbies like gardening and doing crosswords, as well as new ways of socialising with family and neighbours since the pandemic
We also listen empathically as many patients share their struggles and frustrations of shielding – what would happen if there is another wave of infections? How long would they need to continue shielding? Volunteering during the pandemic has given us an opportunity to connect with patients during this challenging time, and inadvertently continue our medical education in a unique way by developing our communication skills. We also hope that our help reduces the workload for key workers during this time.
During these calls, we remind patients that the surgery continues to attend to medical problems despite the pandemic. Doctors are concerned that people are not receiving treatment that is potentially life-saving. For example, there has been a 57% fall in accident & emergency (A&E) attendances overall compared to the same time last year. Furthermore, four in 10 people are not seeking help from their GP due to fear of burdening the NHS during the pandemic. Our experience is one example of how COVID-19 has impacted on the care of a patient. I telephoned a patient in her late sixties. She was shielding during the pandemic due to having asthma. As I started asking about the patient’s wellbeing, I noticed that she was coughing. She began telling me that she had been experiencing left-sided chest pain radiating to the back and had been breathless since the previous evening.
I immediately took a short history from her, during which she was audibly breathless and unable to complete sentences. She had been unable to reach NHS 111 services. The patient’s symptoms had not settled despite using her inhalers. I immediately alerted a GP at the surgery and an ambulance was called to the patient. The patient was admitted to hospital for several days with a diagnosis of pulmonary embolism.
The timing of my call to the patient was purely coincidental and led to the provision of urgent care. This experience made me consider other patients who have not sought urgent care when they needed it, either because NHS 111 services were overwhelmed, that they feared attending A&E departments due to COVID-19 or feared burdening the NHS during the pandemic. As medical students, we often feel that our contribution to patient care on placement is minimal and have little confidence in dealing with clinical scenarios.
However, this experience made me realise that my medical education enabled me to call upon these skills when required and I was able to take a history from a patient as well as to escalate concerns appropriately. We found our volunteering experience during this unprecedented time to be invaluable. It has given us an opportunity to continue developing our communication skills which we hope to call upon as future healthcare professionals. More importantly, we encourage other healthcare professionals and volunteer students who may be in similar roles as ourselves to continue reminding patients to seek medical treatment when necessary and not to delay potentially life-saving treatment during this time.