Medical Students to Be Fast-tracked to Help NHS With COVID-19

Peter Russell

March 16, 2020

Medical schools in the UK have been told to consider fast-tracking qualifications for final year medical students in response to the serious challenge posed by the spread of COVID-19.

In cases where a final year student was deemed by their university to have met the General Medical Council (GMC)'s required outcomes and has graduated, the Medical Schools Council (MSC) said that, subject to fitness to practise, the GMC has confirmed that it will provisionally register that doctor.

"It is important that medical schools do not delay qualification and so prevent new doctors joining the workforce in the summer," the leadership of the MSC said.

Priority Given to Finals

The MSC advice also said:

  • Final year qualifying exams should be prioritised where they have not yet taken place

  • Additional opportunities to take finals as a first sit should be provided where necessary

  • Final exams should be simplified as far as possible, consistent with testing necessary learning objectives

  • Patients should not be used in final clinical exams

The advice acknowledged that, depending on the situation with the outbreak of COVID-19 later in the year, final clinical exams might not be able to take place. In that situation, medical schools should develop alternative methods of assessment, such as using previous exam results, and placement grades.

Schools which required credit-bearing modules and satisfactory attendance to contribute towards qualification were urged to look carefully into whether rules could be modified or waived in the current situation.

The letter said: "We predict that many medical students who have already passed finals will want to volunteer to work in the NHS and we encourage this. Important principles are that it must be their own decision, they should not be allowed to work beyond their competencies, they should be given full necessary personal protection and full instruction in its use, and they should be fully supervised with clear governance arrangements."

Post-finals medical students could help support the NHS by assisting in clinical services other than those dealing directly with patients with coronavirus infection, including dealing with minor injuries or volunteering to work as telephone call handlers for the NHS 111 service, it suggested.

The MSC said it would be updating its advice regularly in the face of further developments.

Medical Schools Take Action

Several medical schools have already announced measures, including ending clinical teaching and cancelling exams.

Last week, University College London said it would release all clinical academics from their university roles if they wanted to help the NHS cope with COVID-19.

Prof David Lomas, UCL vice provost for health, said: "This is a personal choice for each colleague and UCL is not mandating that colleagues should undertake such clinical duties. However, if our staff do choose to take this step then we will reassign their UCL duties and address the implications for grant-funded colleagues."

In an internal email to staff and students last Friday, Prof Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, wrote: "The Medical Science Division is cancelling all clinical teaching until further notice in order to release clinical teachers to the wards."

Students at the University of Cambridge were told last week that teaching at the School of Clinical Medicine would end for the time being, and that the university had sought approval from the GMC to cancel clinical exams.

A spokesperson for the University said: "The exams would have involved students interacting with large numbers of NHS patients and they require over 200 examiners, all hospital doctors or GPs, over a 2 week period.

"The students have already completed their final written examinations and been assessed on clinical competence in previous examinations and on placements in a range of clinical environments."

Training Rotations Suspended

The four Statutory Education Bodies in the UK (HEE, NES, HEIW and NIMDTA), together with the GMC, have announced the suspension of medical training rotations.

Around 20,000 doctors across the UK were due to move placements on April 1st.  

Trainees are now being asked to stay in their present working environment, "unless local arrangements allow otherwise, or wider clinical circumstances require it".

A letter announcing the decision said: "The health, safety and wellbeing of trainees remains a priority for the Statutory Education Bodies and all NHS Healthcare providers. We acknowledge that for many this decision will
present challenges, but believe it is in the best interests of patients and the general population during this coronavirus pandemic." 

Editor's note, 16th March 2020: This article was updated to include rotations information.

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