Vanessa Cutter: Covid-19—the corona cohort of soon-to-be doctors

I am a final year medical student at Newcastle Medical School. Last week I was told I would no longer be required to sit my final exams in the summer. 

My initial feelings were of delight—the relentless study schedule was over! Next followed a stage of disbelief: can the medical school really cancel all exams and let us out into the world as doctors? I don’t feel ready for this. I haven’t faced that final hurdle of assessment and the validation that comes with it. I have worked solidly for the last four years and now won’t even get to “properly” finish my degree. No end of exams celebration and certainly no graduation ceremony, just the daunting prospect of starting work. It’s a bit like training for a marathon, running the marathon, and then getting stopped a mile before the finish line, but being tossed a medal anyway.  

Covid 19 is frightening for everyone, but in addition I feel anxious about my readiness to be a doctor. Teaching for the final six weeks of my placement has—understandably—been cancelled. However, this was my “Preparation for Practice” placement, designed to be an opportunity to consolidate knowledge and learn to apply it practically when caring for patients. I won’t get this now. Instead we’re being told that experiential learning is the focus, while being increasingly turned away from the wards. It has been suggested that medical students may be asked to volunteer as health care assistants or porters, although there is no formal system in place for this yet in Newcastle. Medical students who are used to being busy are now at a loose end and are keen to help in any way they can.  I worry that without any hospital role between now and starting work in August, I will have forgotten the knowledge and skills that I do have.

There is speculation about whether we’ll be asked to start work early. The current focus at my medical school is to get all outstanding GMC competencies signed off so that we can be ready to go if and when necessary. Becoming an FY1 is a baptism of fire, but this feels more like an impending inferno.

Even if we avoid being drafted onto the wards earlier than the usual August, there’s still uncertainty. What will it be like starting work during the worst public health crisis in a generation? Will I know enough to be helpful? Will it be like the blind leading the blind? Most importantly, will I be safe and have enough supervision in order to be safe? The most reassuring factor in the hospital that I’ve worked in is the presence of physician’s associates on the wards. They provide much needed consistency and support for junior doctors on the ward. Physician’s associates are attached to a ward long term and do not rotate in the way junior doctors do, so become an invaluable source of knowledge and mentorship for new doctors. I only hope I am lucky enough to be attached to a ward that has one.

There have been some light-hearted moments too. Banter has centred on whether we’ll forever been known as the “corona cohort” and the generation who didn’t really complete medical school. Will the med reg’s heart sink every time we call them?

So to all of the doctors who are working so hard to fight this covid-19 battle, my message to you is this: the corona cohort are ready and we want to join you in this fight. What we may lack in confidence we will make up for in enthusiasm and readiness to learn when we start. Please be kind and patient with us, it will help us flourish in this turbulent start to our careers.

Vanessa Cutter is a graduate entry medical student in my final year at Newcastle University, due to begin work as an FY1 this August.

Competing interests: None declared