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How Can You Get Clinical Experience During COVID-19?

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We’re now entering the third year of disruptions due to the COVID-19 coronavirus and the disease it causes. While widespread vaccination in some countries has helped reduce the severity of illness among the infected, the truth is that hospitals and health care facilities across the U.S. continue to be strained by the number of cases.

This strain is of greatest concern to practitioners and their patients. But it also impacts pre-medical students like you because of its impact on your clinical experience opportunities, which are a critical part of your development as a future medical professional (not to mention essential for your medical school application).

Shadowing and volunteering in health care settings is—by necessity—much more difficult than it used to be. Even if no new, more-infectious variants emerge, the backlog in procedures and treatments from the last two years could mean that it may be a long time before anything like normality returns. Still, there are options available even in these difficult times. Here are a few ideas for gaining clinical experience during COVID-19.

Volunteering Opportunities

Communities and community health organizations have shown ingenuity and resilience in finding ways to serve even during an infectious disease outbreak. You should be able to find opportunities to help health care organizations dealing with the pandemic in areas such as:

  • Vaccination or testing site steward
  • Vaccination or testing site data entry
  • Distributing test kits or PPE
  • Vaccine education outreach programs

You can also perform other types of outreach for vulnerable populations during this time: for example, you could be a virtual volunteer for senior citizens who are isolating, provide science tutoring for underserved high school students, work on a mental health crisis line, or make use of any fluency you have in another language to volunteer with vaccine outreach in an immigrant community.

If you’re currently in college, your pre-health advising or career advising services should be able to help you with leads on volunteering opportunities. If you’re a non-traditional student, try searching the websites for hospitals or health systems in your area—many will list volunteering opportunities somewhere on their sites. You can also look at working with national or international organizations such as the United Way, the Red Cross, Meals on Wheels, and more.

Telehealth Shadowing

Physicians do not need extra bodies in their offices right now. That’s why they’ve moved many patient consultations to telehealth settings. According to a July 2021 report by McKinsey & Company, practitioners are conducting 38 times more telehealth visits than they were pre-pandemic.

It may be possible for pre-med students to shadow on some of these visits, which not only means gaining insight into the role of physicians—it also means shadowers can see how to manage patient contact in the virtual setting, which is likely to be a much more routine part of medical care in years to come. A number of colleges and independent medical education organizations offer access to virtual shadowing opportunities—a Google search can help you find those sites.

Virtual Scribing

Medical scribing (charting interactions between doctors and patients as they are happening) is a popular option for gaining clinical experience. It’s now possible to complete this work remotely, although usually from a HIPAA-secure site within a hospital or office rather than from home.

We performed a search on LinkedIn in January 2022 that returned more than 46,000 virtual medical scribe opportunities available across the U.S. If scribing interests you as a clinical experience option, you should still be able to find roles.

Virtual Research/ Data Reviews

During the early months of the pandemic, many medical labs shut down completely. Some have resumed operation; others may still be shut. If gaining clinical research experience is a major concern for you, it’s possible you may struggle. However, virtual options do exist. You could participate in chart review research for a physician, perform data entry, data analysis, or simulations for a lab, or conduct surveys or interviews on behalf of researchers.

Professional Certification

Another way to gain clinical experience is to take a short-term course to gain certification in a health care support role. Even before the pandemic, many pre-meds worked as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). You can still pursue this option or look into other roles such as phlebotomy. Many community and career colleges offer these training programs, which typically only last a few months.

Complete a Post-Bacc Program

If you continue to struggle with finding—or fitting in—clinical experience while the pandemic continues, consider pursuing a pre-med post-bacc program after graduation. Even if you have a strong GPA, the additional structure, support, and access to contacts post-bacc programs offer can help you gain additional experience you weren’t able to access during the pandemic. Look for programs that emphasize research and clinical opportunities for their students, and then research them in our online post-bacc database.

Finally, don’t panic: the pandemic will eventually be under control, and you will be able to get into medical school with the right effort. Good luck!

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