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Young and Afraid: What It’s Like to Be a New Doctor During the Pandemic


Earlier this year, some of the country’s largest and most prominent medical schools moved up their graduation dates so new nurses and doctors could join the fight against the coronavirus as soon as possible. There are currently around 130,000 medical residents working across the country. Hospitals and care facilities in some of the hardest-hit regions of the country have been taking on recent graduates to help combat the pandemic, but these doctors may not be prepared for the challenges that come their way.

At Scrubs Mag, we recently published a piece that highlights the need for recent medical school graduates, but the reality of putting these residents to work can be complicated. Many of them do have the training and expertise they need to deal with the rapid influx of COVID-19 patients. Find out what it’s like to be a new care provider at the height of a global pandemic.

From the Classroom to the Front Lines

Most nursing and medical schools are designed to prepare their students for a career in healthcare, but no one saw the coronavirus coming. The pandemic has changed the way we think about patient care, and scientists are still scrambling to learn more about how the virus spreads and how it affects the human body. For many recent graduates, this is especially unfamiliar territory.

New nurses and doctors-in-training may hit the front lines only to learn that the skills and knowledge they learned in the classroom no longer apply on the job. For example, providers may be used to treating patients for known illnesses, but the coronavirus is affecting different patients in different ways, making care nearly impossible to predict.

Different hospitals are also using different treatment methods to care for coronavirus patients. These treatment methods may change on a dime as scientists learn more about the disease, so new doctors need to learn how to think on their toes, instead of relying on established treatment methods.

Critical Mistakes

Considering recent graduates weren’t trained hands-on for a global pandemic, some elements of the job might throw them for a loop, such as using and securing personal protective equipment. If someone doesn’t fasten their face mask correctly or touches a patient when they shouldn’t, the results could be disastrous. They could end up getting infected and passing the virus onto their co-workers.

If your facility is bringing on recent graduates, make sure they feel comfortable working with infected patients. Give them plenty of time to get used to working with protective gear, especially if they have never used it before. Encourage them to ask questions instead of relying on their instincts, considering the nature of healthcare has changed.

Separated from Friends and Family

Instead of attending their graduation parties, the next generation of nurses and doctors went straight to the front lines of the pandemic, and many of them are now living with the reality of what it means to be an essential worker. Recent graduates are living out of spare rooms and hotels as they begin their careers to prevent spreading the virus to their loved ones.

New doctors and nurses will begin their careers with an overwhelming sense of isolation. Buried under face masks, shields, and hazmat suits, they cannot interact with their colleagues or patients as they normally would. All they hear when they go into the ICU is the whizzing of ventilators. They cannot reach out and touch their patients or hold their hands, thus removing the personal nature of the job. Consoling and comforting patients is why many providers signed up for a career in healthcare in the first place.

As challenging as this time may be, some new doctors and nurses will use these experiences to their advantage. They may emerge even stronger and more capable than when they graduated.

Others may decide that working in healthcare isn’t for them. The U.S. is headed for a dangerous nursing shortage in the years to come, and the coronavirus pandemic may steer talented professionals toward other fields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the U.S. will need an additional 203,700 new RNs each year through 2026 to fill newly created positions and to replace retiring nurses.

Many nursing schools have also had to cancel in-person classes for the fall 2020 semester, which could hamper the country’s pipeline of nurses.

Influencing New Doctors and Nurses for the Better

The stress of working during the coronavirus pandemic may lead to positive changes in the workplace. An ER doctor in New York recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times describing how the pandemic has affected his understanding of the job. He talks about watching his colleagues get pushed to breaking point and the need for better disaster planning.

  • The Need for PPE

We will likely see a greater emphasis on worker safety in the years to come. Hospitals will need to prepare for potential outbreaks in the future by stocking up on PPE. State and local governments will also need to put contingency plans in place for procuring additional gear.

  • Emphasis on Mental Health

Many providers currently serving on the front lines will go on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may change the way we think about mental health in the workplace. Providers may advocate for more access to mental health services on the job, including services to treat depression, anxiety, and trauma.

  • More Providers Per Patient

We may also see hospitals keeping more providers on staff going forward to keep up with demand. Many providers are working around the clock to keep up with the influx of patients. Providers will likely continue advocating for stricter nurse-patient ratios, so they don’t have to care for as many patients at once.

If you are working with a new nurse or doctor, talk to them about their concerns and try to help them feel more comfortable on the job. Starting a career in medicine during a global pandemic is an experience unlike any other.

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