Should we really be using final year medical students to bolster the coronavirus front line? 

Among the rest of the coronavirus news torrent, stories are beginning to permeate that final year medical students are being “fast tracked” through graduation and onto the wards to help alleviate the pressure that is currently placed upon our already overburdened NHS hospitals. Final year medical students—myself included—have experienced weeks of uncertainty surrounding the final few months of our degrees. For those who have yet to complete final examinations, the way in which examinations are delivered have been changed in unprecedented ways, with one London medical school delivering their finals wholly online for the first time. Our practical exams have been cancelled, periods of elective experience abroad revoked and for many, final clinical placements have been cut short. Amidst all of this, Matt Hancock made a surprise announcement that over five thousand final year medical students will be deployed into the clinical work force much to the bemusement of students across the country, who had heard no such news before the press conference.

In light of the fractious end to an already long and gruelling degree, the last thing final year medical students need is to be funnelled straight onto the coronavirus front line. A line in which, from anecdotal stories from social media and newspaper articles, is woefully short of personal protective equipment and safeguarding for the staff that already are being utilised there. Early guidelines from various governing bodies have been vague about what exactly would be expected for the newly turned out “doctors.” Sentiments of finalists being “adequately supported” and that they are expected “not to work outside of their competency” are commonplace—but how can these be guaranteed when the same does not seem to apply for the doctors already working on the front line? In such a crisis, how are we going to protect the novel doctors against novel coronavirus with novel legislation? Clinicians already working are clearly overburdened and overstretched enough to warrant the need of a new army of final year students to jump in the deep end, so it seems improbable that they will also have the time to ensure safety of all of those involved. 

The desire of so many medical students to bear arms and help in this crisis is of course admirable, but the notion of a fast-tracked graduation, for me, provokes anxiety. Lots of online sources cite the return of over 7,500 previously qualified doctors and healthcare professionals to the NHS in order to fill clinical gaps in overwhelmed wards. In what way can final year students be expected to positively augment this addition? I feel, as much as everyone else on the planet does, uncertainty fatigued. Perhaps if my degree were allowed to end in the conventional way with the validation and confidence that is conferred by passing standard exams, I would feel more ready to engage early in a clinical role. But without that validation and with the added complication of operating within an unprecedented health threat, I feel less enthused.  The case may be different for those final years at universities where finals have already been completed. But for me, my time is currently best spent improving my knowledge base for my final exams in order to graduate as a safe and competent doctor. Expediting finals at the expense of this revision period will not allow adequate preparation. 

Final year medical students are referred to in the media as commodities; numbers that can be used to bolster the front line against the impending wave of demand. But just as our clinical skills are valuable to the NHS, so is our health, wellbeing and ability to work as competent doctors in August. The demand for clinical staff will no doubt be sustained for the summer months and into August when our first roles as junior doctors would conventionally begin. Would an early start for final year students impact on a continued reliable influx of workforce later down the line?  Fast tracked graduation seems a rash solution to what will be a long-term threat to the functioning of the NHS. And if the promise of over 5,000 final years gracing the wards truly is the measure that tips the balance in the battle of NHS versus coronavirus, then we really ought to all be staying home after all. 

Georgia HinchliffeFinal year medical student at St George’s University of London. 

Twitter: @g_hinchliffe 

Competing interests: None to declare.