Healthcare Education in the Time of COVID-19

The stark reality of COVID-19 hit as I, along with my classmates, were completing our final clinical placement, a moment that is usually seen as the beginning of the end of your physiotherapy degree.

Looking back on college in the time of this pandemic, there were definitely positives and negatives.

  • Commute time was drastically reduced, affording students greater free time in both the morning and evening.
  • Another positive for me was the availability of lectures online. This can only be seen to increase accessibility for students, especially those with disability/illnesses that may not be able to attend in-person lectures as regularly or with the same ease as others. 
  • A definite drawback for me was the reduced level of human interaction, especially in the final few weeks of college from both a social and academic point of view. There was no ability to have so-called “water cooler conversations”, to bounce ideas off your peers or to ask for help with something you’re struggling with.
  • As someone, who, at the best of times found it difficult to stay focused in lectures,  background distractions at home can be challenging. Having access to a physical library again in a central location will make it easier for remote learning if needed.

Another issue to consider is that of international students. Two of my classmates attended lectures at ungodly hours of the morning from the west coast of Canada. This was subsequently mitigated with recordings being made available online for later viewing. With physical attendance likely to be reduced in the future, will there be a reduction in the number of international students who begin courses in Ireland? And what impact will these changes have on non-EU student fees which are already far higher than their EU and Irish counterparts?

Can I see remote learning becoming a permanent fixture in Ireland? Definitely. I think the benefits of accessibility and inclusivity far outweigh any negatives deemed to be associated with remote learning. That said, heretofore, healthcare degrees have relied on face-to-face teaching, particularly for the practical elements of the training. Remote learning will not meet this need.  

The issue of clinical placements being organised in a time where Covid-19 is still circulating is one that I am sure has caused many headaches and will cause many more for the faculty. One has to imagine that over the next year, while healthcare and education changes from face to face to ‘blended’ versions, clinical placements will need to be reimagined.

Virtual physiotherapy appointments were, and still are, widespread during the height of the pandemic, alongside pulmonary rehabilitation and exercise classes. If this is to become part of our profession’s future, surely it is vital that these skills are learned and practiced while undergoing training as undergraduate students? 

Elite sport has been allowed since early in June this year. Given the routine testing of athletes across many sports in Ireland, it is likely that any outbreaks will be highly controlled, reducing the risk of spread. Might we see a higher number of physiotherapy students undertaking clinical placements in elite sporting contexts?

It is likely that the fallout from this pandemic will stretch beyond case numbers and deaths and there will be a large cohort of people who experience reduced physical capacity for many months. Should physiotherapy and other HSCP students expect to have larger placement allocations to the rehabilitation of these people and should placement allocations be more focused on the treatment/rehabilitation of Covid-19 given the world these students will be graduating into?

Clearly, in the coming months, many questions will need to be answered on the student experience of education in the time of Covid-19.

This Blog post was written by David Power, Physiotherapy graduate from RCSI.

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