This blog was originally published in the Kingston Whig Standard on October 22, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has put an exceptional strain on health systems. On very little notice, all aspects of our health systems had to pivot and adapt.
These changes have had a trickle-down effect on our health professional students. I’m both proud of them and concerned for them.
As a new dean, I have yet to meet all of our students, but from the interactions that I have had, I can tell you this: students in the Faculty of Health Sciences are bright, considerate, and engaged. They care deeply for each other, for our community, and for their patients. Even during Homecoming weekend, we’ve witnessed, on the whole, the maturity of the students and their willingness to modify their social practices for the protection of the community.
These students are the doctors, nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists of the future.
With our health systems under immense pressure, with hospitals experiencing higher than average absenteeism, and the possibility of being overwhelmed by patients fueled by outbreaks – it has never been more important to ensure that these students graduate and enter the workforce.
In order to continue training our students, we have made major changes to our programs. These programs, which were already demanding, now require students to wear personal protective equipment, to incorporate physical distancing into their learning, to take courses online that otherwise would have been in person and to accept limited face-to-face time with their professors and fellow students.
There is also now a strain on their personal lives. Because they are spending times in clinical settings and laboratories, our faculty has required that our students be diligent in following extra protocols to keep their personal risk of contracting COVID-19 low. Our students must think about who they live with and how they interact with their housemates. They must make tough decisions about who to socialize with outside of class, or how often they can see family and loved ones, if at all. For some students, depending on their program and exposure to patients, travel outside the region is prohibited. These kinds of requirements can take a heavy toll on one’s mental wellness.
And yet, looking across our medicine, nursing, rehabilitation therapy programs at Queen’s, I have been astounded at how our students have responded.
They have not only headed the call to change their behaviour; they have gone above and beyond.
You may remember hearing stories about them in the spring – 3D-printing PPE, delivering groceries, providing childcare, fundraising, finding ways to support people on the frontlines as well as the most vulnerable in our community.
And now, seven months later, they are still at it. In just the past week, I heard stories about nursing students sewing tricolor masks for friends and colleagues as a fundraiser for their graduation. The student-led Rehab Therapy Society Mental Health Committee has been hosting events with the aim of supporting each other. And a group of medical students, who were staying in Kingston over Thanksgiving, baked pumpkin pies for their neighbours.
Our students are not just critical in the future as health professionals; they could also be a huge asset now. Should we experience staffing shortages at our hospitals, the first call will be to our upper year students to help fill in the gaps as personal support workers and rehabilitation assistants.
Our health professional students are experiencing unprecedented times. Their education has been flipped on its head, and they are adapting to new ways of learning, all the while following restrictions that ensure that they are being safe and protecting patients at every turn.
In this time of uncertainty, where we see public shaming of those who contract COVID-19 and finger pointing at individuals and groups, we need to take the high road.
We need our Kingston community, and community leaders to rally around our students and show their support. We need our students to know that we trust them and that they can count on us to guide them through this difficult time, so that they can in turn provide the care and support that is essential in our times of need.
The Hon. Dr. Jane Philpott is a former Federal Minister of Health and Minister of Indigenous Services. She is Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Queen’s University.