Focus on education amidst pandemic

From implementing distance learning and organizing virtual research presentations through Zoom and other online programs to updating curriculum to include COVID coursework, educational leaders at Baylor College of Medicine are charting new territory during the coronavirus pandemic. Their goal? To continue training the next generation of physicians, healthcare professionals and researchers effectively and without interruption.

Dr. Alicia Monroe

“It is taking a monumental effort on the part of all of our schools and education programs to adapt and transition to the ‘new normal’ presented by the global pandemic,” said Dr. Alicia Monroe, provost and senior vice president of academic and faculty affairs. Our leaders as well as our learners have truly stepped up to the plate, and I’m confident that all of our educational needs will be met. In fact, I believe this crisis has presented learning opportunities and offered lessons in innovation that may continue to benefit us in the future as we consider how to educate the next generation of healthcare professionals.”

An educational update from each of Baylor’s schools is provided here.

School of Medicine

Dr. Jenny Christner

“Some people may think that learning has stopped, and nothing could be further from the truth,” said Dr. Jenny Christner, dean of Baylor’s School of Medicine. “My team is working nonstop in order to transform the curriculum for all four years, and tend to the concerns of students, and I know that the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the School of Health Professions are doing the same.”

The school’s foundational courses have been converted to distance learning that students can complete from their homes. The simulation program is now being conducted via Zoom. This program is an important component of foundational courses and clinical curricula in which students gain experience through interactions with simulated patients – real people who play the role of a patient. By using Zoom, students are also learning about telehealth, for example, how to instruct the “patients” on performing certain tests and checks on themselves, which has emerged as a key element to healthcare in the COVID-19 era.

School of Medicine leaders are likewise working on converting gross anatomy courses to a virtual platform. The anatomy faculty also is looking into virtual dissection options for students.

On the clinical learning front, students are presented patient cases virtually, and faculty are working on developing COVID curriculum to ensure students have the latest evidence-based information on the novel virus. Gaining an understanding of how social determinants of health play a role in COVID-19 and healthcare in general remains a key focus of the School.

Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

Dr. Carolyn Smith

“A few graduate students are still working in labs with their mentors and advisors conducting essential COVID-19 related research,” said Dr. Carolyn Smith, dean of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. “Many others are working from home doing data analysis, writing papers and theses, reading research papers and participating in virtual lab meetings and journal clubs. This focus on the ‘desk’ portion of their training was often hard to fit in, so the new normal of COVID-19 has allowed for a greater focus on this element.”

First-year graduate students are attending class via Zoom and taking tests through the school’s Blackboard system. These students also are working on reading the literature with rotation advisors and selecting their research mentors for the coming years.

For students further along in graduate school, qualifying exams, thesis advisory committee meetings and dissertation defenses all are happening by Zoom. Family and friends are still invited to join thesis defenses, which is important for students, Smith said. Importantly, the pandemic hasn’t delayed students planning on graduating this spring from earning their degrees, she added.

For incoming students, the admissions process has continued and the graduate school expects a regular class size to enter this summer.

School of Health Professions

Dr. Robert McLaughlin

“I could not be prouder of our School of Health Professions’ staff, students and faculty. Each program stepped up in a major way to assure that coursework would continue on track as much as possible. We went from having one degree program that conducted a fraction of its courses online to 100% engagement across all programs in a matter of days,” said School of Health Professions Dean Dr. Robert McLaughlin. “Our administrative staff, instructional design specialists, and IT support staff gave amazing guidance to assure that each faculty member and student had the tools and access they needed.

“Before they return to our affiliate clinical sites, each student will complete COVID-19 training on the virus, on precautions in the worksite, and on the health disparities that have come into sharp focus. We value the clinical preceptors at each clinic and hospital who model their expertise alongside our students; we promise them and their patients that each Baylor student will enter clinical and residency sites with the latest knowledge and skills, prepared to learn and to serve in this new healthcare environment.”

Physician Assistant Program

Students begin the Physician Assistant Program in a classroom setting, so Zoom again is utilized for lectures and small group studies, as well as for viewing previously recorded lectures. Weekly check-ins have been scheduled virtually for students and advisors, and program directors and other faculty have made themselves available weekly for hour-long “touch-base” sessions, said program director Katherine Erdman, P.A.-C.

Trying to keep a sense of normalcy and routine, learning activities such as lectures, small group activities, student presentations and Director’s Hour take place at the usual scheduled time. Exams normally take place via an online program called ExamSoft, while that hasn’t changed, students now use an additional program called Exam Integrity that remotely proctors tests.

For the clinical-phase, students are off rotation and instead are busy with activities related to preparing for their national certification exam, conducting research, performing case-based exercises using Aquifer, an online learning platform that uses interactive virtual clinical classes. Students also prepare presentations to give to the others in their group twice per week, facilitated by faculty, covering topic areas from the certification exam blueprint.

Doctor of Nursing Practice – Nurse Anesthesia Program

Students in the first year of the Doctor of Nursing Practice – Nurse Anesthesia Program have experienced little interruption, as their courses are designed to be online during this phase.

The second-year cohort is participating in teaching lectures by Zoom, at their regular dates and times, with faculty creatively working to engage students. Simulation is an important component of their training, and some sessions can be held virtually but some are being rescheduled. Exams are also on schedule, but conducted at home using Exam Integrity.

For DNP students in the third-year of their training, clinical rotations have continued at many facilities but some regular activities such as exams and weekly conferences are via Zoom and exams via Exam Integrity.

“The students are grateful they are still in the clinical area, not only for the clinical learning, but also for the opportunity to help with our community’s challenge from COVID-19,” said program director Dr. Jim Walker.

Orthotics and Prosthetics Program

The Orthotics and Prosthetics Program’s educational activities are conducted through Zoom, including small-group discussions and active learning where case scenarios are studied and reviewed.

Students who are in their clinical year are writing guidelines for best practices on two topics and taking part in two journal club discussions each week. However, to add to the learning experience, clinical experts from across the country join students during these webinars to offer commentary and share ideas.

Continuing the idea of including outside perspectives, non-BCM orthotic and prosthetic residents who are displaced from their clinical sites have been invited to participate in these Zoom webinars. So far, residents at Hanger Clinic, the University of Michigan and the University of California San Francisco have joined in on Baylor resident discussions.

“Getting to connect with others has been a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Ashley Mullen, assistant professor in the School of Health Professions at Baylor. “Most other OP residents are outside of an academic setting when they are completing their residency, but the BCM residents still have academic support. We thought this could potentially be helpful to those displaced residents outside of our system.”

Genetic Counseling Program

The Genetic Counseling Program is continuing its curriculum in both the classroom and clinical phases of the program using Zoom where students and faculty are connecting virtually.

Adapted learning experiences include interactive student-supervisor case preparation for patients they would normally see in clinic. In addition, students are engaging in supervised telemedicine encounters utilizing platforms such as Consultagene, an online, multimedia platform that provides educational resources, tele-genetic counseling, peer-to-peer consultation and genomic testing interpretation.

“We have also asked our students to self-identify counseling skills they wish to work on through the distance education process and are engaging students online in case based discussions and role-plays with faculty,” said Dan Riconda, associate professor and program director for the Genetic Counseling Program at Baylor.

In an effort to make the enrollment process as close to normal as possible, faculty have been conducting remote interviews and showing student-generated virtual tours of the campus to candidates. Current students are even arranging “virtual dinners” with candidates the night before their interviews to give candidates the opportunity to meet current students in a relaxed setting during these times of transition.