Kramer Chall: For medical students, volunteering in the pandemic can be an opportunity for professional growth

There is not a person or aspect of life that has not been affected by covid-19. The pandemic hit as I was approaching the notoriously hard second year exams at medical school. Like medics across the country, I sacrificed a lot of time over the year preparing for these exams—which turned out to be in vain. One by one, my work experience, research, summer internship, and exams were cancelled due to covid-19.

I initially relished the idea of an extended summer holiday, but the reality of doing nothing quickly set in. Before long, I lost my routine and found my days beginning at 1pm. My motivation to study had shrunk with no exams to work towards and I even found watching Netflix lacklustre. Like many other medical students, I joined the voluntary workforce at my local hospital. I was assigned to non-clinical work around the trust. I initially supported the occupational health department and, subsequently, the health and wellbeing department in human resources.

Organised clinical placements for medical students often follow a standard format; we work through learning objectives in order to develop professional skills and knowledge. Medical education supports our development in a controlled environment, with students led and supervised by experienced seniors. Developing a skill like teamwork, for example, is shaped through curriculum driven assignments like group work. We then have time to perfect our work before presenting it and being given feedback immediately. 

My work in occupational health and human resources has been a contrasting learning experience. The tasks you are given no longer revolve around your medical education. You are trusted to complete the tasks efficiently and accurately. This requires a degree of initiative we do not necessarily have to use in clinical placements. When someone rings asking about covid-19 testing, for example, it is my job to advise them. You are aware that you are supporting a larger team as they complete their own tasks, so you take it upon yourself to find answers to problems before asking others.

In clinical placements, you may be hesitant to give definitive answers without guidance but at work you build the confidence to answer people’s queries. On placements you are protected by the guise of being a student and let off for any oversights. However, while volunteering, you are responsible for the quality of your work. It is important to reflect and adapt how you work to produce the greatest outcome as others may be dependent on you. Seeing everyone pitching in to help has been really motivating in this aspect.

Later in my volunteering, I was given the opportunity to supervise a project in health and wellbeing. The team and I were responsible for contacting people who had been affected by covid-19. We experienced the humanity behind the statistics as we spoke to people in distress due to anxiety and bereavement. This was a humbling experience, where we used and developed our empathy and communication skills to help. In contrast to placements where patients volunteer to speak to us, actively calling people in the community made a real difference to their wellbeing through the simple gesture of asking how they were.

The opportunity to lead a dynamic project has been unique to my volunteering. My team worked with experienced staff to plan and implement a procedure to tackle a problem. As covid-19 policies changed daily, our approach needed to adapt as well. We developed a sense of rapid adjustment in an unprecedented challenge. I was responsible for planning, delegating work, and presenting our outcomes to senior managers. This was a rare opportunity to develop my leadership and problem solving skills while helping others. I can carry my new skills forward into my medical career. 

Finding passion in our clinical placements is easy because we are immersed in medicine. While volunteering, I was in an office covering phones, filing notes, or completing spreadsheets. While this work is vital for the functioning of the NHS, I have to admit I found it mundane in comparison to medical practice. My ability to adapt and persevere grew as I found them to be keys to being successful. My perceptions adapted to use my volunteering as a propellant for my professional development. Upon reflection, I have developed a deeper respect for the people who often go unpraised but who are invaluable to the functioning of our NHS. My enthusiasm for medicine has reignited as I look to resume my studies, having regained a routine. 

The pandemic has been demoralising and stressful. As medical students, it is in our nature to want to help. Volunteering provides a unique opportunity to help and develop yourself—an opportunity that has never and may never be available to us again. 

Kramer Chall is a medical student in Birmingham going into third year.

Competing interests: None