Like all students, medical students in China were sent home by universities because of the covid-19 outbreak, but there has been intense debate over whether they should join healthcare staff on the frontline treating the infection in hospitals. 
It must be remembered that medical students are students first, and shortages of medical supplies and their lack of experience may leave them less well protected than senior doctors. The personal cost of infection is also high for medical students in China, as they work for hospitals with lower resources and do not have a sound work-related injury insurance system.
Although some students believe that caring for covid-19 patients could be useful experience which would stand them in good stead for their future career, China’s Ministry of Education prohibits this, for the sake of students’ safety.
The shortage of medical staff is greatest in regions most affected by the virus, but elsewhere hospitals are also short handed, albeit to a lesser extent, as many healthcare staff have been dispatched to support more severely hit regions.
Medical students, particularly clinical postgraduates who are residents of hospitals, are the backbone of hospitals under normal conditions, and Chinese hospitals now need the support of medical students more than usual. Medical students have also taken the solemn Hippocratic Oath in which they swore to preserve life at all costs.
At present, the covid-19 epidemic in China is more under control, but the international situation is still grim. Even if domestic epidemics are controlled, there will be imported cases, as is already being seen in China.
There are no international recommendations for reopening universities in areas hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic, but according to the latest notification from China’s Ministry of Education, medical students may take the lead back in returning to universities (and in their case hospitals). More discussion about medical students’ return to university and training in hospitals and China is warranted, along with details of the safeguarding measures that will be implemented for the protection of their patients and themselves.
Yunxiang Zhou, department of surgical oncology, The Second Affiliated Hospital, Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou, China.
Lingda Zhang, department of education, The Second Affiliated Hospital, Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou, China.
Anwen Shao, department of neurosurgery, The Second Affiliated Hospital, Zhejiang University School of Medicine, Hangzhou, China.
Competing interests: None declared.