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Officials mull allowing Illinois medical students to graduate early, join COVID-19 fight

Chicago students say they would be willing to pitch in if they get the OK.

Students at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine have been serving as infection control monitors at the University of Chicago Medical Center amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Provided photo

As Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday that medical students nearing graduation could soon be tapped to respond to the rising tide of novel coronavirus cases in Illinois, some fourth-year students said they were willing to heed the call.

During a press briefing at the Thompson Center, Pritzker said his administration is currently “exploring options to allow some of our fourth-year medical students and nursing students at the end of their programs to join the fight against COVID-19.”

Pritzker’s office didn’t respond to a request for additional information about the options for students. But Jose Sanchez Molina, Pritzker’s deputy press secretary, told ABC News that “the administration is working closely with universities across the state and early graduation for medical students is an option we are looking into.”

Students say they are ready

If the idea gets the go ahead, the three students leaders of the graduating class at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine all said they would be willing to join the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19.

“As long as all considerations for patient safety remain foremost, I would be happy to assist in whatever way is possible to be helpful without getting in the way of the health care team,” said Tyrone Johnson, a southern California native studying internal medicine who is slated to start a residency in mid-June at the UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco.

With COVID-19 cases spiking across the globe, officials in America and abroad have begun fast-tracking medical students into doctors as a way to bolster the response to the unprecedented global health crisis.

Last month, students in Italy and the United Kingdom were graduated early to battle the deadly virus. Since then, a list of prestigious medical schools in New York and Massachusetts announced they were also moving up graduation dates for the same reason.

U. of C. dean: challenges remain

Despite those moves to add medical personnel to areas reeling from COVID-19, Dr. James Woodruff, the Pritzker School’s dean of students, told the Sun-Times that academics are still questioning whether “that whole idea is either desirable or practical.”

“There’s all sorts of challenges logistically at the education level, at the accreditation level and then probably at the licensing level,” Woodruff said. “I think there just isn’t enough time to either address or to warrant, quite honestly, the work that would be necessary to get everybody credentialed and sort of set up to do that.”

Representatives for Northwestern and Rush universities didn’t respond to questions about medical students potentially being allowed to graduate early.

University of Chicago medical student leaders Ty Johnson, Lucy Xu and Kathryn Nutting.
Provided

But on Wednesday, the Chicago-based American Medical Association issued guidance acknowledging that in some cases “the workforce demands may be great enough that it is appropriate to consider including medical students in direct patient care.”

“Some students may be permitted to graduate early from medical school and may subsequently contribute as employed members of medical staffs prior to entering their planned residency training,” according to the AMA, the nation’s largest association for physicians and medical students.

According to the guidance, students should voluntarily graduate early and make their own decision about working directly with patients. When possible, those students should “serve under the supervision of an approved graduate medical education program.”

Students already pitching in

At the University of Chicago, Johnson and his fellow “Pritzker Chiefs” — who serve as co-presidents of the medical school’s graduating class — have for weeks been leading a more distanced student response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The effort started when school officials assembled students last month to announce that classes were being moved online. When an employee from the medical center asked if anyone would be willing to help monitor patients, roughly 100 students in attendance raised their hands.

“It was incredibly heartwarming from our perspective,” said Lucy Xu, who starts a residency at Harvard Medical School in June. “These are students who are going to be future doctors [and] they’re so eager and willing and ready to do whatever it is they can to help.”

While the volunteer program started with students keeping track of health care workers who came into contact with likely or confirmed coronavirus patients, it has grown into a widespread initiative. Among other things, students are now manning a COVID-19 hotline, making and tracking down much-needed personal protective equipment and staffing a blood bank.

Dana Levinson, the medical school’s associate dean, said the students have become “the unsung heroes” of the university’s response.

“It’s not the kind of work that people point out and say, ‘Wow, you’re being heroic,’” said Levinson. “It’s the kind of thing that only gets noticed when it isn’t being done.”