Dr Andrew Sharkey, Director of Studies in Pre-clinical Medicine at Robinson, tells us how our medical students have responded to the challenge of COVID-19, and what the University and the College in partnership have done to support them.

Clinical medical students.

In response to the escalating pandemic in March, our fourth and fifth year clinical medical students had their practical clinical placements cancelled. The final MB examinations they would normally take this term have been postponed until later in the year. Fifth year students would normally be going on elective for 8 weeks in June and July. These usually involve a period working in another country in a hospital or clinic to give experience of health care delivery in different clinical setting. This is a very valuable experience for most of them and they work hard to arrange these placements well in advance. Many will have booked flights and hopefully they will be able to retrieve some of this money. They have all been sent home but told to keep the summer free, so they are available to return and catch up on their placements as soon as this is possible. Several are working as healthcare support workers in their local hospitals in the meantime.

As has been widely reported in the media, the sixth year clinical medics in Cambridge completed their course early without taking their final MB part III examinations in April. They would normally undertake a period of supervised ‘apprenticeship’ in May-July before starting as junior doctors in late August. This year they have been able to seek provisional GMC registration early, so many of them have volunteered to work as junior doctors on the wards to help their more experienced Addenbrookes colleagues cope with the increased workload and disruption due to the COVID-19 crisis, by taking on more routine and administrative tasks. While they are at home, the clinical school has put in place some online learning and students are being encouraged to finish as much formal revision as possible. The hope is that some of them may be able to return to assist in some capacity over the next few weeks, and we are waiting to see how that might develop. They will of course have to take their examinations at some point this year.

Pre-clinical medical students

Our first and second year pre-clinical medics left Cambridge on the 12th March having taken their 2nd MB examinations in Head and neck Anatomy (1B students) and the ISBM and SECHI examinations (1A students). Since then, in consultation with the GMC, the University of Cambridge has agreed to cancel the Tripos component of their examinations that would have taken place in May. Instead both 1A and 1B students will sit 2nd MB exams in September, provided conditions permit this. For example, it is likely that HOM and MIMS examinations will be taken remotely, with Anatomy examinations including steeplechase, taken when students return at the end of September, just before the start of the University term.  Although the removal of the Tripos component of the examination does make things easier for the students, they do face the prospect of having to keep some degree of revision going over the summer to ensure the pass these critical subjects so they can proceed on to the next year. We have decided to continue with normal revision timetables for this term, so they are prepared and ready to take full scale mock examinations in June, at the same time as they would have done the normal exams. Our thinking is that having revised the material extensively, they will still be able to be able to take a significant break over July and August before preparing for the 2nd MB examinations in September. 

Many students benefit from the long summer to rest after the intense Cambridge year and take up paid work to help earn money for the year ahead. It seems they are likely to lose out to some degree on both counts. All of this adds to the pressures all of our students face, but I am impressed with their resilience as they work independently at home to continue their revision and exam preparations under often difficult circumstances. Huge thanks are also due to our dedicated supervisors who have resumed small group teaching and revision classes last week operating online. They have been magnificent in supporting our students during this time.

Our part 2 students face the most challenging circumstances, since they will be required to take their finals in June but remotely. This is because the University feels strongly that it is essential that they can graduate with a properly examined degree that reflects all the hard work they have put in during their time as undergraduates. In consultation with departments and student representatives, the University has adjusted the examination formats in each subject to accommodate the disruption due to COVID. Students have now submitted their projects and dissertations remotely and are now preparing hard for their final examinations at home. With siblings and other family members all living together in lockdown, this has been very challenging for many of them. We are working hard to support them all and I am meeting them individually every week to help them arrange supervisions and talk through with them their strategy for final weeks of revision. It is certainly a baptism of fire, but for the most part they are coping very well.

Dr Andrew M Sharkey

Director of Studies in Pre-clinical Medicine, Robinson College