May 26, 2020

Learning, in real life: Medical students in ‘driver's seat’ in developing popular pandemic course

With sections on systems response, disparities, epidemiology, PPE, and more, the course delves into many facets of pandemics through the lens of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis

UMMa pandemic course

From top left: Netana Markovitz, Jackie Kercheval, Erin Finn, Stephanie Reyes, Noah Newman, Jessica Santos-Parker, Keli Santos-Parker, Rebecca Howland, Charles Keilin, Benjamin Li, and Eric Steinbrook. Not pictured are Zoey Chopra, Annie Murphey, Isabel Shidla, Nithya Vijayakumar, and Ann Wolski

Led largely by students, a rapidly developed course on pandemics implemented this spring is likely to become a permanent part of the University of Michigan Medical School (UMMS) curriculum.

With sections on systems response, disparities, epidemiology, PPE, and more, the course delves into many facets of pandemics through the lens of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. The material went from concept to Canvas, the online classroom platform, in less than a month and is now required learning for all UMMS M2s and M3s.

“That is unprecedented. Most of the time when you are creating a new course in the medical school, it takes 6 to 18 months to deploy,” said Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine Eve Losman, M.D., a chief advisor in the course’s development. “The other thing that is really unique about the curriculum is that it is entirely informed by what the students were curious about. They were in the driver’s seat.”

Five student groups led the creation of five unique chapters, each exploring one aspect of pandemic response using COVID-19 as a case study. Participants learn about the history of pandemics; disaster response from the federal down to the local and institutional levels; health inequities exacerbated by pandemic conditions; and more. That’s just chapter one.

Leading much of the student effort was third-year UMMS student Jackie Kercheval, who first pitched the idea to administrative leaders after the pandemic cut-short her clinical rotation in Detroit. Her initial suggestion for a short COVID-19-focused class quickly expanded.

“The first thing I suggested was a general COVID-19 overview, but the literature in terms of management and practice changes by the minute. We therefore decided on a broader approach that talks about pandemics in general,” Kercheval said. “As medical students, we’re not at the bedside with these patients yet, but no doubt we will face another pandemic in the course of our careers.”

Kercheval put together a rough pandemic course outline and sought out fellow students interested in researching and building out individual lesson sections, pulling materials from literature, newspaper reports, relevant podcasts, and more. Losman, who serves as co-director of the medical school’s Diagnostics and Therapeutics Branch, recruited faculty colleagues to review and help shape the course materials in their respective areas of expertise. The team also collaborated with key Office of Medical Student Education staff members Heather Wagenschutz and Tomas Mauricio to bring the course to fruition.

“I can’t say enough about the students and the work they put in. They were clearly dedicated to understanding this pandemic and helping others understand it as well,” Losman said. “As I had colleagues look at the material the students were providing, the emails I got back were really positive.”

The pandemic course opened to students in mid-April, part of the collection of e-courses available after social distancing guidelines resulted in a temporary “pause” of all clinical rotations. It is required material for all second- and third-year students, although many fourth-year students have viewed it as well, and first-year students are yearning to take a “peek.”

“That the fourth-year students, who were weeks from graduation, requested access to this optional class is really gratifying,” Kercheval said. “The first student to finish all of the sections reached out to me to let me know how much he appreciated it, which was unexpected. I’m so happy at the level of engagement with this material.”

That engagement is likely to continue beyond this year, as administrators and faculty leaders are exploring way to make the pandemics course a permanent part of the ongoing UMMS curriculum, said Rajesh S. Mangrulkar, M.D., associate dean for medical student education.

“We want to make this part of the regular curriculum moving forward because it’s such rich, timely information,” said Mangrulkar. “I am so proud of our students and happy to be part of an institution that empowers students to lead.”

Future iterations could even expand the course’s themes beyond the medical school to include perspectives and voices from the other health sciences schools, including nursing, public health, and social work.

“One of our hopes is to partner with educators across the University to expand and tailor the course to different graduate-level learners so everyone can benefit. As the ongoing crisis has made clear, medicine is very much a team sport,” Losman said. “Unfortunately, history tells us that this is not the last pandemic we’ll have. If we are able to educate our students about the issues you need to think about when you’re faced with this type of situation, we’ll be better prepared for the next time.”

Story by Craig McCool, Communications Manager, Global REACH