3 lessons I’ve learned as a doctor during the pandemic

By | April 20, 2021

COVID-19 has changed nearly every aspect of society as we know it, and doctors in hospitals across America are at the forefront of those changes. As a pediatric infectious diseases doctor who also writes curriculum to help the next generation of doctors prepare for their medical exams, I’ve seen firsthand how this current pandemic is changing our roles with patients, shifting what families and communities expect from us, and expediting advances in training and information sharing across the field.

While my work at a children’s hospital is obviously focused on children and adolescents, the shifts I’m observing and the lessons I’ve learned impact doctors in all areas of practice who want to provide exceptional care to their communities.

1. Emotional support is key

As the pandemic first began to spread, pediatric doctors like myself had less information than those in the adult world of medicine had at the time. Almost all of the statistics, studies, and data we were receiving were coming from adults. Children were naturally quite sheltered—in more ways than one — when things started happening.

With the absence of clear data and trends, doctors were left without clear guidance on how to advise parents. While it appeared that children were statistically at a lower risk, which removed some of the medical worries, the uncertainty made things worse. Families were coming in with sick children, and you could see the exhaustion and anxiety in their faces. I would constantly get questions about school closures, or playdates, or whether their children should avoid seeing their grandparents.

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Doctors quickly had to take on a much bigger emotional support role during the pandemic. I often spent more time sitting down with a family and figuring out their options than I did dispensing strict medical advice. No one knew what would happen in the coming months—and we still don’t, yet—and this required medical staff to really become quasi-counselors in the hospital setting. Building a relationship of trust and transparency was more key during this period than ever before.

Lesson for the Future: Doctors must stay sensitive to parents’ worries, especially in times of ambiguity or medical uncertainty, and seek ways to provide a listening ear and emotional support.

2. The doctor-community information partnership has grown

Throughout this pandemic and the overwhelming uncertainty facing society, doctors also had to step into the gap between government regulations and parents trying to navigate day-to-day life. I began to see people turning to their pediatricians for information, and specifically distilling what matters out of the news or announcements they recently heard.

In many cases, doctors became a neutral third party amongst an increasingly polarized political and legal discussion. Having physicians present for school board meetings, town halls, and policy discussions provided a means to keep discussions grounded in science and get facts to those making decisions. People naturally gravitate to those closest to them who they’re familiar with and trust, and doctors became that source of information.

Lesson for the Future: Doctors should be viewed as stakeholders in the broader discussion about education, grassroots outreach, and information dissemination. Doctors must likewise stay up-to-date on the broader context in which patients may be asking them questions about health concerns.

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3. Updated education is critical for the next generation of doctors

I’ve always enjoyed continuing education, even during medical school. I was that late-night nerd pulling an all-nighter simply because I enjoyed taking in all the information I was reading. I don’t think anyone was surprised when I went into infectious diseases as a specialty.  Today, continuous learning is an ongoing passion of mine. I even research and develop a curriculum where I educate medical students and help them prepare for the USMLE and other licensing exams.

What I’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of education in terms of developing the skills needed to be a good doctor. There are many commonalities in the skill set required to do well on an exam, and the skill set to provide exceptional care and think strategically about society-wide medical solutions.

For instance, there are many sections of the exams where you need very specific analytical skills. Identifying the key details that lead you towards one response and away from others.  And we’ve seen how this type of analytical thinking has really risen in prominence in practical medicine over the past year as we’ve navigated the constantly changing medical landscape.

There will always be new challenges, disease outbreaks, technological advancements, and labs already working on preparing for it with new production capacities, new vaccine technologies, and more. We’re also seeing a growing need for predictive analysis and medical data, as well as public advocacy and education surrounding public health and medical best practices.

This is going to be huge amongst our academic institutions. The next few years are crucial for preparing ourselves, our institutions, and the next generation of doctors and medical staff. We can’t get complacent, which means we need to invest in ongoing education for aspiring and existing physicians.

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In my work with UWorld, I expect to see more curriculum development and test questions about pandemic exposure, disease prevention, and modernizing our responses. I’m already preparing to do a lot of stakeholder outreach and talk to other doctors about their on-the-ground experiences during COVID-19. We’re still waiting for evidence, data, and outreach, because the pandemic is still ongoing, but it will be absolutely fundamental that we prepare ourselves for the future.

Lesson for the Future: In terms of general medical trends, doctors, hospitals, and educational institutions will need to do a full debrief about the past year and really break down the science and research about what happened, what should have happened, and what could have happened. And we’ll need to re-invest in our education to make sure that we’re ready for whatever comes next.

Nicholas Rister is a pediatric infectious disease doctor, Cook Children’s Medical Center, Fort Worth, TX. He is also a physician author and pediatrics content developer for UWorld.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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