Planning your teaching in uncertain times

Summer is upon us and, with it, planning for fall semester teaching. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world these days vis-à-vis the COVID-19 pandemic – which has contributed to some uncertainty in planning for curricular delivery. At the School of Medicine, we have permission to run some learning activities face-to-face (such as clinical skills) with new restrictions in place to maintain social-distancing, but our traditional classroom-based teaching will be impacted as well.

The Education Team is here to support Course Directors and all teaching faculty as we face these new challenges. While we don’t have all the answers yet about room assignments and scheduling, there are still many things we can do right now to help with your planning and preparation for both your synchronous (all students learning at an appointed time, either in a classroom or via Zoom) or asynchronous teaching (students provided with learning materials that need to be completed by a certain deadline, but otherwise, they can learn on their own schedule and own pace). If we don’t have solutions to your queries, we’ll help find them.

Things we can help you with now:

  • Discovering options for asynchronous teaching

Course Directors have been asked to consider different avenues for asynchronous learning. While this already exists in many courses in the form of Directed Independent Learning electronic modules, there are other options, too. If you would like to increase the amount of asynchronous learning in your course – or just explore possibilities – we can help with this.

  • Learning techniques for interactive teaching via Zoom

We learned a lot from our two-and-a-half months of remote teaching using Zoom from March – May. If you’re concerned about how to keep your teaching engaging and interactive while “talking to a box”, we can help with this – and provide some practice opportunities, too, so it’s not so intimidating. Tools you may already be using in the classroom, such as videos and polling, are easily leveraged on the Zoom platform.

  • Exploring approaches to assessment

Your current assessment plan may be just fine, but there may be things you’d like to tweak given the logistics of remote delivery. We’ve sorted out quizzes, graded team assignments (GTAs), and proctored exams already, so we can address these and any other concerns you have and make any appropriate modifications.

  • Guiding you to resources

We can point you towards Faculty of Health Sciences and campus-wide faculty development opportunities and services that are available and talk about which approaches already fit with the UG program, and navigate through other possibilities.

  • Brainstorming and problem solving

While the landscape may have changed with the COVID-19 pandemic, our goals as your Education Team remain the same: we’re here to help you prepare for, deliver, and improve your teaching and assessment.

Please get in touch:

Theresa Suart theresa.suart@queensu.ca

Eleni Katsoulas eleni.katsoulas@queensu.ca

Rachel Bauder rachel.bauder@queensu.ca

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The Legacy of George Floyd – What will it be?

We watch, horrified, recordings of the last few seconds of George Floyd’s life. We hear his last words– “I can’t breathe”. The symbolism of the white, uniformed figure whose knee is at this neck, unresponsive to his pleas, could not be more stark. For many, George Floyd is the most recent, most poignant example of a history of racial subjugation, mistreatment and killing that spans the past four centuries. For many, it’s a sad reminder that similar crimes and protests of five decades ago were not the final expression of that discontent. For us all, it forces a confrontation with the reality that the dream of Martin Luther King “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” has, sadly, not yet been realized.

Locally, we have been challenged by these events to consider what, if any, implications they have for each of us personally, and for our school. Many faculty and students have expressed very clearly their concerns, their discontent and have called for change. In the interest of exploring this further, I met recently with our student leadership and medical students. Those discussions were candid, sincere and highly illuminating. They expressed realities about the experience of Black medical students at Queen’s with clarity and openness. The tragic killing of George Floyd, it seems, has opened a discourse and raised to the surface issues and concerns that are not new, but not previously expressed as bluntly. It has also, it must be said, caused all of us to listen with greater sensitivity.

Out of those discussions, a number of themes and practical measures are being developed and advanced. I have since had opportunity discuss these with our current Dean Dr. Reznick and our incoming Dean Dr. Philpott who are both very supportive.

  • All medical schools have a responsibility for social accountability. The exact nature of the commitment, expressed in a Diversity Statement, is school specific and should reflect the regions served and values of the particular school. That statement should drive a variety of school activities, including curriculum, recruitment and admissions. In the light of recent events, it seems appropriate to re-assess our Diversity statement. Our Diversity and Equity Committee, chaired by Dr. Mala Joneja, will be charged to draft a renewed statement to be considered by our faculty council
  • Our curriculum should prepare our students to provide comprehensive care to patients of all ethnic and racial backgrounds. This should be reflected in both the content and delivery of the curriculum. Our Curriculum Committee will be charged with re-assessing both aspects through the lens of the Black population. It will also be asked to ensure that opportunities exist for open and constructive dialogue between students for discussion of difficult and contentious topics.
  • The Black population of Canada is under-represented in our medical school. This is despite the fact that our admissions processes are scrupulously unbiased with respect to racial considerations. In fact, I realized as we discussed this issue recently that it was impossible to even determine the racial make-up of our incoming class, simply because this information is in no way documented or considered. The under-representation of Black people is almost certainly a complex and multi-factorial issue. Our Admissions Committee will be tasked with giving consideration to what factors may be active and to consider how they might be addressed.
  • Very concerningly, and despite numerous (and I believe very sincere) efforts to address this over the past few years, our students report a lingering perception within the Black applicant community that Queen’s is an unwelcoming environment. This no doubt contributes to the under-representation issue and merits deep consideration at all levels.
  • It seems clear that the promotion of mentorship opportunities for our Black students and applicants would be of benefit and should be pursued actively, both within our schools, and through effective collaborations outside our school.

None of this will occur if efforts are restricted only to a vocal minority who have themselves been the subject of racism in their lives and therefore need no convincing of its existence. It is rather for those of us in the “silent majority” of society who abhor racism but have not been its direct victims to take stock. We need to listen and, in those ways that are available to us, act.

Many will question why a murder in Minneapolis, tragic as it is, should influence the discourse and decisions at our small, somewhat secluded and seemingly tranquil medical school in Kingston, Ontario. I will admit to initially sharing that skepticism. I have come, through reflection on my own experiences with racism and through discussion with our students, to a different perspective. I would now say to those people who question these directions that no community in the western world can consider itself immune or unaffected by racism. I would say that injustice of any form diminishes and affects us all. I would say that we bear a collective obligation to the memory of George Floyd, to all the George Floyds of the past and to every person today afraid to jog alone through a park or be pulled over for a minor traffic violation. We owe it to them to take whatever action is in our power to take. We act for them but, in the end, we are acting for us all and for those who will follow.

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The Event Was Virtual. The Graduation Was Real!

In its 166 year history, the Queen’s School of Medicine has no doubt hosted many memorable events to mark the achievement of graduating students. None, I’m sure we can assume, compared to last week’s celebration.

For the past few months, a small committee let by Drs. Renee Fitzpatrick and Andrea Winthrop has been meeting and struggling to develop some appropriate way to recognize the graduation of our Meds 2020 class, given the limitations imposed by the pandemic. The result was a “virtual” event made possible by Zoom technology, our dedicated MedVC team and coordinated by Jacqueline Findlay, UG Program Manager.  

Dr. Harry Chandrakumaran, Meds 2020, and parents”attending”, with hood provided by Mrs. Chandrakumaran

Our virtual graduation celebration was “attended” by 300 sites that signed in, as well as an unknown number live streaming the event. Attendees were located in cities all across Canada, as well as several in the US and Europe.

Dr. Heather Murray, in full regalia, attending from Grant Hall

It featured an opening welcome to families and supporters of our graduates, followed by individual recognitions of each graduate. Dean Richard Reznick paid tribute to the class, challenging them to make a difference. Dr. Susan Moffatt was selected by the students to provide remarks on behalf of faculty. Drs. Heather Murray, Erin Beattie and Brigid Nee were selected by the graduates to receive the prestigious Connell awards for outstanding lecturing, mentorship and clinical teaching. Dr. Akshay Rajaram was selected by the students to receive the award for outstanding teaching by a resident.

Dean Richard Reznick addressing Meds2020
Dr. Susan Moffatt, Faculty Speaker

Dr. Cale Templeton and Julia Milden were selected by their classmates as Permanent Class President and Class Valedictorian.

Dr. Cale Templeton, Permanent Class President, Meds 2020
Dr. Julia Milden, Meds 2020

In her address, Dr. Milden spoke of the gratitude of her classmates for family, friends and teachers. She acknowledged admiration for her classmates and the bonds of friendship that had developed during medical school and would persist through their careers.

“I am struck today reflecting on what exactly it means to be called a doctor, the thrill and duty of carrying this new title and the letters MD. This particular moment in time seems to make incredibly clear the power and responsibility of this role. On the wards or on television, writing orders or writing policy, doctors of all kinds are illuminating the challenges of their patients and of the system, and working together to help shape what we do as a whole world to take care of one another.

So what gives us this influence?

I think it’s the message we send when we say ‘I’m a doctor’ – to whomever we’re meeting, it means: I’m listening, I respect your wishes and your opinions, I know how to learn and am motivated to investigate your problem,  and I will do everything in my power to help you.

And most remarkably, the skills and qualities this social trust is based on are ones that we have right now: our willingness to listen, and our ability to care.”

Certainly, we must acknowledge that the event was decidedly not what anyone envisioned when Meds 2020 began medical school one September morning over four years ago. Nonetheless, it was every bit as real as the degrees earned by our graduates and received by them last week. It occurred because of a very real refusal to allow any mere pandemic to diminish the significance of what these young people have accomplished, nor overcome our desire to express our pride and extend our good wishes.

To them, our admiration and congratulations…really.

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Balancing Social Responsibility and Personal Rights in a Time of Crisis

Reading the New York Times these days can be a rather jarring emotional experience. It is replete with stories of people and families devastated by the COVID crisis. Excruciatingly detailed and poignant accounts of people dying in their homes or hospitals, isolated from surroundings and those who have been significant to them. Married couples dying within hours of each other leaving shattered families behind, all deprived of the end of life processes that would normally help with the grieving process and achievement of some emotional closure. Hospital workers struggling to provide some modicum of solace and dignity before having to move along to the next patient.

Turn the page, and you read accounts of protests by those decrying the restrictions that have been imposed by their governments, claiming their rights to choose to assemble and assume personal risk.

Protesters at Queen’s Parki on Saturday, April 25 demand an end to public health rules put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.

These stories are not limited to New York or even the United States. They come from Italy, Britain, Mexico, South America, the Far East. It seems no place is spared, although the impact and time course varies considerably.

In our own characteristically muted fashion, the same dramas are playing out in Canada. Political leaders, hearing loud and clear from all constituencies and all perspectives, struggle to strike a balanced and responsible approach.

All this serves to highlight two great realities of this pandemic. Firstly, it is affecting virtually every human being on the planet. The sheer scope is mind boggling and it’s difficult to think of any prior catastrophe that even comes close. The second reality is that its very nature is such that it renders each of us both a target and a mechanism for spread. We are simultaneously potential victims and potential perpetrators. We are all therefore forced to make choices, and those choices are expressed not through words so much as through our actions.

For the vast majority, the choice is clear. Simply remaining secluded and abiding by social isolation directions from authorities is not only in their personal best interest, but also their means of contributing to the public good. It can be inconvenient, unsettling and, depending on personal and family circumstances, very demanding. It also requires a degree of trust and faith that decisions are being made with best information and with the best of intentions. It requires political leadership that evokes that trust. But most importantly, it requires a willingness to endure some degree of personal hardship for a perceived greater good.

For those who provide essential services, the choice is very different. For those people, the greater good is to continue their duties while exercising appropriate precautions. The willingness of health workers and the many essential service providers who allow our society to continue to function in these very challenging times is a testimony not only to their dedication and courage, but to their belief that they have a role in contributing to the welfare of others. They are nothing short of heroic. 

All of us are affected. All of us are making sacrifices that require us to balance our personal interests with our obligations to those around us. Our fundamental values, both individually and collectively, are being exposed. The ideological and moral differences between individuals, communities and even countries are being laid bare in the face of this crisis. The early results are largely positive and even inspiring. But the real test is yet to come. As the acute crisis abates to some extent, and it becomes clear that a complete return to “normal” is a long way off, how will we engage this “new normal”? Our leaders and governments are making decisions that require them to determine the very nature of what constitutes “common good”.  What seems clear is that what will determine success is not our ability to protect our personal interests, but the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice those personal interests for that common good.

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It’s science, not speculation, that will get us through this.

Why do COVID patients experience such profound hypoxia without feeling dyspneic?

Why is there such heterogeneity in clinical severity among young, previously healthy patients?

Are asymptomatic people able to carry and transmit the virus, and for how long?

Does immunity develop after infection, and how long does it persist?

Does antibody status indicate complete protection from re-infection?

Do currently available anti-viral agents have effect?

Will previous approaches to vaccine development be effective?

These are some of key questions still under investigation as we now pass 6 months since this infection originally came to attention. The answers to these questions are the keys to resolving the greatest heath and economic catastrophe the world has faced. The answers will not be provided by scientists or politicians working in isolation, but rather by the application of scientific approaches, supported by political and economic action.

This past week, we’ve seen examples of how this can work well, and how a lack of synergy will impede progress.

In Canada, our government has announced a billion dollar investment in COVID-19 medical research, and support for a Task Force to determine the extent of the disease.

In Germany, a nation-wide public health investigation has begun to carry out widespread serologic testing intended to define the true extent of disease and implications of prior infection.

(New York Times Photo from story link)

In the United Kingdom, vaccine development is well underway with massive investments already in place.

All these have come about through effective collaborations between government, funding agencies and scientific and medical communities. We’ve also seen examples of what can transpire when those collaborations are not effective. We’ve seen that, even if well intentioned, speculative assertions by a political leader can be assumed by the public to be scientifically informed and thereby lead to dangerous actions.

There has been much debate in recent years within the medical education community regarding the relevance of research and critical appraisal in undergraduate medical education. These topics have been gradually and rather insidiously receiving  decreased attention in favour of the many other competencies and “hot items” that have been emerging, all with justification. I would suggest that recent events have resolved that debate. The questions posed at the beginning of this article were not posed exclusively by basic scientists and epidemiologists, but also by clinicians trained to accurately observe patient responses, critically assess current understanding and pose valid, useful hypotheses for testing. Clinicians will also be very much involved in developing protocols and executing investigations to find answers. Medical schools have a responsibility to ensure that fundamental training continues to be a core component of their programs, now more than ever.

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Getting students back into the clinical workplace. Why? When? How?

Medical education is not just a program for building knowledge and skills in its recipients… it is also an experience which creates attitudes and expectations.

Abraham Flexner

It’s long been appreciated that medical education must provide much more than academic knowledge about human biology and pathology. It must also provide opportunities to observe and participate in the application of that knowledge to real people with real problems. In fact, the earliest forms consisted entirely of “on the job’ practical experience in apprenticeship-like arrangements with practicing physicians. The contemporary model of medical education incorporates the Clinical Clerkship which, since early in the twentieth century, has provided opportunities for medical students to work alongside fully qualified physicians and make active contributions to clinical care while observing, learning and advancing their skills. It has been modified considerably over the years, extending into a variety of clinical settings and incorporating embedded formal learning activities. It has proven highly effective in preparing students to both develop fundamental skills and better understand their own place in the rapidly expanding world of clinical medicine.

Until, that is, about a month ago.

As a result of the massive disruptions caused by the COVID pandemic and as reported in the last edition of this blog (https://meds.queensu.ca/ugme-blog/archives/4797), it became unavoidably necessary to pull medical students from their clinical placements. This was not because of a lack of perceived value, but because the simple logistics of maintaining safe and educationally viable experiences in the face of the stresses currently being faced by our hospitals and faculty became insurmountable. Since then, students have been undertaking an on-line, remotely delivered curriculum intended to provide learning that would normally have been undertaken in conjunction with their clinical placements. By doing so, it’s hoped they will be in a better position to complete their training within whatever time remains when clinical placements are eventually resumed.

Over the past few weeks, medical schools across the country have been almost continuously engaged in discussions to determine when and under what circumstances students will be able to re-engage this very necessary component of their education.

Why the rush?

Firstly, these clinical placements are essential components of learning and training. To undertake medical education without experiencing clinical application would be like trying to learn to play the piano without ever touching one. One might learn everything about how the instrument is constructed, how it works and the principles of music, but could never become a musician without guided, progressive application of all that knowledge.

Secondly, Clinical Clerks are able to provide useful clinical service. Although their scope of activity is obviously limited, they are able to off-load certain tasks to allow more advanced learners and fully qualified physicians more time to concentrate on more complex patient interactions and procedures, all the time observing and learning through active participation. They will also, and very importantly, learn the value and satisfaction that comes from helping provide useful  service to patients and thus further their growth as professionals.  

Thirdly, and very pragmatically, failure to graduate on time will be very damaging. Our medical schools serve our society and are expected to provide a steady infusion of trained physicians to the Canadian workforce. There will be a point at which insufficient time is available to complete degree requirements. A failure to graduate the 2021 class on time, or close to it, will result in gaps in that supply line, at a time when need is particularly urgent and is likely to continue well into the future.  In addition, overlapping with subsequent classes will put further stresses on already limited clinical training sites and have implications well into the future.

Finally, it must be recognized that the students of today will be the leaders and front-line providers of whatever health care crises face our society in the future. We must not deny them the learning that this crisis provides. There is valuable, perhaps unique, learning available to them that will shape not only their understanding, but their attitudes and personal preparedness. 

For all these reasons, much thought has been given to the “when”. In doing so, a number of principles and practical criteria have been developed.

Principle 1: Patient Safety.

Would the presence of students in the clinical environment jeopardize or promote optimal patient care?

  • Would students be able to provide valuable service by “off-loading” specific aspects of care from other providers?
  • Would students increase the risk of disease transmission?
  • Would students consume valuable PPE?

Principle 2: Student Safety.

Can students be protected from, or excluded from, excessive risk?

  • Although some small risk is inherent in any clinical placement, would students be exposed to risks considered above the “norm”, or without protections and considerations that would be reasonably expected?
  • Will students be provided with the full, minimum PPE that is suggested as required by scientific knowledge with respect to COVID-19?
  • Are there local occupational health processes in place to protect students who may be exposed to COVID-19?
  • If it is deemed essential to exclude students from some clinical situations and not others, can that exclusion be reliably achieved?
  • Do current student liability arrangements cover the current clinical environment?

Principle 3: Safety of clinical teaching faculty and hospital staff.

Would student placements jeopardize the safety or wellness of teaching faculty or other hospital staff?

  • Would students provide valuable service that would be of benefit to faculty or other providers?
  • Would students integrate into care teams as currently constituted during this crisis?

Principle 4: Learning.

Can a valuable learning experience be provided?

  • Are there sufficient roles in which students can engage?
  • Do these roles have educational value?
  • To what extent is any involvement at this time a valuable and possibly unique learning experience?

Principle 5: Supervision.

Are there sufficient clinical teaching faculty available to provide student supervision?

  • Can continuing oversight of learners be provided?
  • Can learners be assessed?
  • Are these available in all areas necessary to provide a full clerkship experience?

In terms of the “how”, criteria such as these will be continuously assessed and the current state of readiness for re-entry evaluated on an ongoing basis. It’s understood that a certain minimum time, at least a month, will be required to “on-board” students to the altered workplace. The earliest possible return is therefore always at least a month displaced from a final decision. At this point, only the most optimistic estimates would suggest a return before July.

In addition, schools are striving very hard to coordinate their efforts and synchronize both entry and graduation dates. Given the differences in curricula and clerkship structures across the country, and the differing regional impacts of COVID, it seems unlikely all schools will reach a state of preparedness at precisely the same time, but there is strong commitment to minimize discrepancies.

There is also a growing recognition that the elements of clerkship and the residency matching process are almost certainly going to be substantially altered. Discussions about the number and type of elective opportunities that will be available, and the implications for residency selection are very much “on the radar” of undergraduate programs, postgraduate programs and CaRMS, but substantive decisions must await more clarity about timing of return and graduation dates. Whatever those dates, schools all recognize the critical importance of ensuring that all graduates are provided equivalent opportunities to achieve graduation requirements and engage residency positions.

It will be important through this process to maintain full transparency and communication between schools and, critically, with our students whose lives and careers are literally “on hold”. This article is an attempt to promote that communication, which will no doubt continue across our country in the weeks and months ahead.

Stay tuned. We will get through this, together.

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Five tips for working and learning from home

We’re now into Week 3 of delivering our UGME curriculum (as much of it as possible, at least) via online teaching and learning as part of Queen’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic response mandates. As well, most staff are also working from home. You may still be trying to find your groove in this new configuration of teaching, learning and working without direct in-person contact with colleagues. With this in mind, I’ve begun making notes on tips for working and learning from home. Here are my initial five:

1. Negotiate your space carefully.

A view of my basement bunker office…

This is especially important if you have housemates. In some households, working-from-home space may be at a premium. In my home, there are four of us working and learning from home – my husband, my Grade 10 son, my graduate student daughter who has de-camped from McMaster, and I are competing for space in our townhouse. I’m in what I call the “basement bunker” – it’s a corner of the basement, near the foot of the stairs. It’s windowless but has everything I need: my desk, electrical outlets, and my three computers I’m using to check-in on multiple learning events. My daughter is at the opposite end of the basement, near a teeny-tiny window.

My husband got the kitchen table—he has a window and is closer to the tea kettle—but I don’t have to pack everything away for lunch and supper. My son is migrating from place to place.

2. Make friends with Zoom.

While there are multiple on-line options for course delivery and meetings, for UGME we’ve been using Zoom predominantly for courses and meetings. Like any other online platform, it has its quirks and protocols. It helps to become familiar with the key commands, like “raise hand”, share screen, chat, and how to “unmute” yourself. Remembering to use these things in a timely way is another story.

At least once per meeting, as this screen shot illustrates, I forget to “unmute” myself.

What we’ve all discovered over the last two weeks is that online is more exhausting than face-to-face. My Education team colleagues and I coined a new term – “zammed” as in “I’m zammed” meaning fatigued from back-to-back-to-back zoom session as in: “I’m zammed” in place of “I’ve done six hours of zoom today and I am SOOOO done.”) And, yes, we’ve all voiced the Brady Bunch and Hollywood Squares comparisons.

3. Look away!

In regular office work (and classrooms, too), we naturally change from focusing on “up close” versus mid and far. With so much of our work and learning lives moved online, we’ve upset this balance. To help combat screen fatigue, use the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look (out the window, across the room) and focus on something about 20 feet away. (To avoid looking disinterested in a Zoom meeting, turn off video before attempting the 20-20-20 exercise (see #2, above). (For more on the 20-20-20 rule, click here: https://www.healthline.com/health/eye-health/20-20-20-rule#definition)

4. Be flexible and patient with each other and with yourself.

We’re all on a pretty steep learning curve and lots of people are juggling extra responsibilities in an environment that isn’t as conducive to learning and working as our on-campus spaces are. (Not to mention our faculty who continue with clinical responsibilities, some of the front-lines with the COVID-19 response). Meetings and classes may start a couple of minutes late; somebody will have lost a link or have an old one; sharing screens may not launch exactly how we want. And everyone has forgotten that mute/unmute button at least once so far (Again, see #2). As much as possible, take things in stride. If you’re caring for children or sharing tech, you may need to reschedule how/when you do certain tasks. Our recording and posting of all learning events (as quickly as possible) is one tool we have to help with any learners who need to “time shift”.

5. Remember working from home isn’t working 24/7.  

With the line blurred between home and school/work, it can be easy to lose track of any boundaries. Make time for something besides your work/studying. I don’t mean you have to be super-productive at something like some of the memes going around—just get away from your computer and thinking about work/school at intervals. (In the first week, some nights I dreamt about zoom meetings. I woke up feeling like I’d put in overtime). Turn off your brain. Whether that’s some fluff television (insert your poison of choice here… I hear there’s something on Netflix about a tiger?), an online Zumba class, knitting, meditation, or a vicious game of Bears-versus-babies with your housemates….

What are your best tips for our new home-based curriculum? Feel free to share in the comments below.

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The Crisis is the Curriculum. Education in the Midst of COVID-19

When I was a young father fretting about whether I was doing all I could to advise and guide my children, a very wise man provided some sage advice. “If there’s one thing I know about young kids, it’s that they don’t listen to much of what you say, but they watch everything you do.” His point was that we teach through example. Our behaviour, the decisions we make and the principles that we rely upon to guide those decisions are what really matter. They are what impress and persist in the memory of learners.  

That advice has withstood the test of time and, I’ve found, extended beyond parenthood to influence my perspectives on medical education. As factual information becomes more widely and easily accessible, medical students have less and less need for didactic teaching, but more and more need to understand how to manage that information and, importantly, how to “live the life” of a practicing physician. How decisions are made. How uncertainty is engaged. How stress and fatigue are managed. They’re watching, and they’re very astute observers.

All this has never been truer than during the current COVID-19 crisis.

The roles and routines of our students have been altered dramatically. In a short period of time, the first and second years have shifted from a curriculum featuring predominantly whole-class presentations, small group learning and regular clinical skills sessions with standardized and volunteer patients, to a remotely delivered curriculum that they’re accessing individually from their homes scattered across the country. Clinical Skills is being “parked”, to be made up when circumstances allow, in a manner not yet determined.

Our final year students have, fortunately, completed their clinical rotations and are also utilizing remote access to complete their curricular requirements. They are on schedule to graduate and enter their residencies July 1, but are facing adjustment and disappointment, with the cancellation of Convocation ceremonies, delay of the MCC Part 1 examination to some future date, no doubt after they start residency, and the uncertainty of what sort of hospital environment they will be engaging.

Perhaps the greatest impact has been on our third year class. About three weeks ago, we had to make the very difficult decision to suspend their clinical placements. This was not because of a lack of perceived value, but because the simple logistics of maintaining safe and educationally viable experiences in the face of the stresses currently being faced by our hospitals and faculty became insurmountable. For them, we are developing a completely original on-line, remotely delivered curriculum intended to provide learning that would normally have been undertaken in conjunction with their clinical placements. By doing so, we hope to be in a better position to complete their training within whatever time remains when clinical placements are eventually resumed.

How has all this been possible? Two simple answers: people and technology.

Our curricular leadership has taken on this unprecedented challenge with great creativity and tenacious dedication. Our newly appointed Assistant Dean Curriculum, Dr. Michelle Gibson, as well as Year Directors Drs. Lindsey Patterson, Andrea Guerin, Heather Murray, Susan Moffatt and Andrea Winthrop have all stepped up despite their own individual obligations at this time to develop and manage this transformation. Assistant Deans Hugh MacDonald (Admissions), Renee Fitzpatrick (Student Affairs) and Cherie Jones (Academic Affairs and Accreditation) have all overseen adjustments in their respective portfolios.

Our administrative staff has managed all this with dedication, a cooperative spirit and good humour. Although working remotely in compliance with university directives, they have managed to maintain excellent working relationships and communication.

All this has largely been made possible through technologic advancements that have been under steady development for the past few years. Zoom technology, in particular, is what makes remote educational delivery possible. Our faculty has engaged this with remarkable alacrity, even the technology-challenged (myself, for example). This past week, I was able to hold a virtual Town Hall with 76 members of the fourth year class, in which I was able to both update them about key issues and hear from them on a variety of topics.

It also makes it possible for our administrative staff to “get together” for daily meetings to ensure the curriculum is being delivered effectively, and all administrative aspects of the program are attended to.

Curricular Coordinators Tara Hartman, Tara Callaghan, Jane Gordon, Vanessa Thomas, Assessment Coordinator Amanda Consack, Educational Developers Theresa Suart, Eleni Katsoulas, Student Affairs Coordinator Erin Meyer, Standardized Patient Manager Eveline Semeniuk, Admissions Team Rachel Bauder and Kristin Baker, Facility Manager Jennifer Saunders, Student Support Assistants Dana Halliday and Jessica Griscti and UG Program Manager Jacqueline Findlay are all managing their areas of responsibility with great skill at this most difficult time. 

What makes the technology possible is the remarkable skill and dedication of our IT support staff, headed by Peter MacNeil.

All this is certainly impressive and worthy of recognition but, it must be recognized, it is far too early to celebrate or claim any victory. This crisis is far from over. In the weeks and months ahead, there will no doubt be new, vexing challenges that come our way. It is nonetheless appropriate to pause and recognize the efforts being made by so many, and to take comfort in the knowledge that we have the capacity and dedication to engage change.  

It’s also appropriate to consider some early lessons that are emerging.

Education continues. Even if there were no formal structures or sessions in place, our students are witnessing a unique event. Their training to date allows them insights they otherwise wouldn’t have. In essence, the crisis itself is the curriculum. They are observing and learning. Much of that learning will relate to how the medical community is engaging the crisis, both collectively and individually. As I was told so many years ago, it’s not what we say but what we do that will persist.

We’re adaptable. Problems that seemed insolvable a short time ago are being solved. Impenetrable barriers are being easily breached. We’re learning to do things we didn’t have either the motivation or inclination to learn previously. And it’s working.

Communication is critical. The need to communicate efficiently and clearly has never been more apparent, or critical. Technology has allowed this to happen and, thankfully, was available when needed.

Opportunities are emerging. Circumstances are causing us to engage issues that have previously been ignored because the solutions seemed too disruptive and risky. We’re now forced to take on those issues by necessity and are beginning, in some cases, to find that those misgivings were preventing us from engaging valuable alternatives. Case in point, the role and electives in medical education will require a re-thinking and re-imagining that’s been long overdue.

And, most importantly…

Medical Students belong in the clinical workplace. All the efforts to maintain formal education remotely are certainly of great value and allow us to ensure our students are progressing in their basic learning, but it does not substitute for active engagement in the workplace. Students themselves, all across the country are coming forward to provide what service they can. They are providing home support for busy clinicians. They are manning phone lines for Public Health. They are collecting valuable equipment for use in hospitals. They’re donating blood to address current shortages. Over and above all this altruistic volunteerism, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are many very useful roles they can play within the clinical workplace. Every medical school in the country is working tirelessly to determine when they can re-enter safely and in a supportive learning environment. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem imminent at the time of this writing.

Finally, it must be recognized that the students of today will be the leaders and front-line providers of whatever health care crises face our society in the future. We must not deny them the learning that this crisis provides. By “watching everything we do” and through active involvement, they will emerge better prepared to engage the challenges the future.

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COVID-19: Advice from previous crisis management experience

By Brent D Wolfrom MD CCFP

The following was distributed to the physicians in the Queen’s Department of Family Medicine earlier this week and has since found its way to a broader audience. Please feel free to distribute it you think it will be helpful. The context is based on my experiences as a Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, in particular lessons learned during a couple of tours to Afghanistan:

As we head into this pandemic I thought I would share a few thoughts based on my past experiences with crisis planning and management in prolonged stressful environments involving complex systems and little control. These are completely subjective lessons that helped me cope in prolonged stressful experiences and they may not relate to you. That said, I would have really valued receiving a variant of this email 12-13 years ago.

  1. This event is unlike anything we have lived through before and we all expect it to be drawn out, especially if social distancing does what we hope it will. It is likely that at some point we will all transition from an acute to chronic crisis mentality. This can be a difficult transition because it can feel like defeat. It’s not. It’s us getting better at beating COVID-19.
  2. Plan now for wellness and stick to your plan rigidly, however, also set expectations at a realistic level.
  3. Find supports who will talk about non-COVID, or ideally non-medical, related topics and stay in touch daily, even if just by text or email.
  4. There will be long and dark days ahead and people will all cope differently. A small word of encouragement or appreciation from a colleague will make all the difference.
  5. Support each other. If you have the time or capacity to help someone just do it.
  6. Communication. Communicate with those who need the information and minimize with those who don’t. Be deliberate about your email distributions and who you include on the To vs CC lines. Information overload is going to happen and we need to be deliberate about protecting each other.
  7. Brushup/readup now on the skills you consider outside, but proximal to, your normal scope. We don’t know where we will be needed in the coming weeks.
  8. Remind yourself daily that you are trained to deal with this situation, even if that means lying to yourself a little bit.
  9. Grief doesn’t equal failure. Bad outcomes don’t equal failure. Say those two phrases daily.
  10. There will be many changes and constraints over the coming weeks-months. Sports, clubs, social events, etc that used to recharge you will not be available. Try to find a replacement for each joyful activity you lose.

As a discipline we have just come out of a few recent years of public assaults, difficulty and infighting. Now we are the face of our nation’s defense against this threat. How times change quickly!

Watching our department, and specifically the physician group, come together over this pending crisis has been so encouraging. I truly believe we have a fantastic group and we have a great team supporting us. We will be even stronger and better at the end of all of this.

Dr. Wolfrom is a family physician, former Course Director for our Year 1 Family Medicine course, and currently Postgraduate Program Director for family medicine at Queen’s University. He was previously a full time Medical Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces.

A version of this post was shared earlier on the CMAJ blog.

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“If I can help somebody”. Two voices challenging our concept of diversity.

You can’t be in a hurry listening to a Mahalia Jackson song. Her voice captures your attention like a moth to a flame. She extends each lyric and note, drawing you irresistibly into the heart of the song. You have to wait for her. You want to wait. You can’t not wait.

Her voice is like a warm blanket on a cold winter night. A refuge from the busy and hectic world, a place where haste is no longer a virtue and we’re reminded of the value of slow, deliberate contemplation and search for deeper meaning in what’s transpiring around us.

One of her songs, in particular, came to mind as I recently read an article about a young man named Logan Boulet. Logan was born in Lethbridge Alberta in 1997, the second child of two teachers who decided to name him for the highest mountain in Canada. He was an active child with many, constantly evolving interests. He loved hockey and more than made up for average size and natural talent with dedication, intensity and commitment to his team. His work ethic bordered on the obsessive. He eventually came to play for the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Logan was one of 16 people killed April 6, 2018 when their team bus was struck by a loaded tractor trailer that failed to stop at a highway intersection near Armley, Saskatchewan. His father, who was driving 15 minutes behind the bus, was one of the first on the scene.

Four weeks earlier, Logan had signed his organ donor card. He did so in honour of a former trainer who had died at 58 of a cerebral hemorrhage and been an organ donor. Logan’s heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas and corneas have all been successfully transplanted.

When asked a few weeks before by his father why he decided to sign the card, Logan replied:

“If I can help save six people, I’m gonna to do it”

When I read the article, his words stuck with me. In fact, I couldn’t shake it. I’d heard those words before. Turned out it was a Mahalia Jackson song entitled “If I can Help Somebody”.

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Hard to imagine any two human beings whose life experiences were more different. Mahalia Jackson, two generations removed from former slaves, was born in New Orleans in 1911 and lived her childhood in a three room dwelling with 12 other people, including her mother, aunts, siblings and cousins, and the family dog. She was afflicted with congenital genu varum (bowed legs) which would have caused pain and physical limitations but didn’t stop her from dancing for the white ladies for whom her mother and aunt cleaned house. Her childhood was difficult, particularly after her mother died when she was five.  There was no schooling, but there was church and, with it, singing. And how she loved to sing. She was courted by choirs and choirmasters particularly after she moved to Chicago at age 20. She went on to become one of the most celebrated gospel singers of all time, the first to sing at Carnegie Hall and at John F. Kennedy’s inaugural ball. In 1963,  she sang before 250,000 people assembled to hear Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Five  years later, she would sing at his funeral. She was  an important force in the civil rights movement, but also the subject of racial prejudice and herself the target of assassination attempts. Despite all this, she remained hopeful and never embittered. When asked about her choice of gospel music over more popular forms, she said, “I sing God’s music because it makes me feel free. It gives me hope”.  She is also quoted as saying that she hoped her music could “break down some of the hate and fear that divide the white and black people in this country”.

The particular song that came to mind when I read about Logan goes as follows:    

If I can help somebody, as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody, with a word or song
If I can show somebody, that he’s travelling wrong
Then my living shall not be in vain

Mahalia Jackson and Logan Boulet. Two very different people. Different races, genders, generations, talents, interests, culture, environment. Poster children for our concept of “diversity”. It’s hard to imagine they would ever have had occasion to encounter  each other, even if they weren’t so separated by space and time. And yet, they were linked by a common value and simple, human interest in doing what they could to help people around them. Linked in their values. Linked in their humanity. And so, perhaps not so diverse after all.

Here’s a link to that song. Give it a listen, but don’t be in a hurry.

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