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COVID-19: UCSD medical students thrive after first year online

M.G. Perez
Dr. Natalie Rodriguez teaches students at the UCSD School of Medicine, La Jolla ,CA, October 13, 2021

The San Diego County Health Department reports more than 365,000 people in our region have been infected with COVID-19 since the pandemic began. That’s created an up-and-down challenge for doctors and other medical professionals. It was especially difficult for first year students who had been accepted into the UC-San Diego School of Medicine in December 2019. They started the rigorous program in the fall 2020 in the midst of the pandemic and before vaccines were available. All classes moved online using the ZOOM platform.

Dr. Natalie Rodriguez is an associate clinical professor at the UCSD School of Medicine. She credits her students, who are now in their second year, with resilience for pushing through a difficult start to their careers. Rodriguez said, “They bring their enthusiasm, their compassion, their passion, their innovation, especially this last year with COVID.

Her classes finally returned to in-person on campus in September. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, students were practicing pediatric procedures during a mock office visit. Dr. Rodriguez played the role of a mother with an 18-month old child. The “child” was a mannequin, which allowed students hands-on experience they had missed during the pandemic shutdown.

Matthew Bowler
Dr. Natalie Rodriguez consults with her student Justine Panian at the UCSD Free Clinic, Pacific Beach, CA, October 20, 2021

Urvi Gupta, 24, was one of those students. She came to study in San Diego from her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. She remembers vividly the day she was accepted to the UC San Diego program. “I was so excited when I got the email on my phone, I dropped it and started screaming,” Gupta reflected. She says she never gave up hope that she would make it to medical school even when the shutdown happened.

While spending the first critical year of medical school in distance learning, Gupta also dealt with the devastation caused by COVID-19 in her family’s home country of India. If anything, she said the experience will make her a better doctor. She told KPBS News, “no matter what the medium and the platform our first priority is just making the patients feel comfortable and making sure we are providing excellent care. This past year has shown us no matter what the situation we are put in, we can do that.”

“They bring their enthusiasm, their compassion, their passion, their innovation, especially this last year with COVID.
Dr. Natalie Rodriguez

The medical students are also encouraged to volunteer at one of the university’s four free clinics located in central San Diego neighborhoods. Besides her teaching duties, Dr. Rodriguez is also the attending physician at the free clinic in Pacific Beach. It’s housed every Wednesday night at the Pacific Beach United Methodist Church. Services offered to uninsured, indigent patients include basic healthcare and often specialty care in mental health, dentistry, and optometry. Medical students support veteran doctors at the clinic.

The COVID shutdown last year cut the staff at the clinic to just a handful of doctors who didn’t see patients in person, but instead recruited medical students and coordinated drive-by drop off delivery of medication, online consultations, and virtual education sessions for patients when vaccines became available.

Matthew Bowler
Associate Clinical Professor at UC San Diego's medical school confers with other doctors and medical workers about the care they will provide during the free health clinic hosted by the Pacific Beach United Methodist Church, October 20, 2021.

2020 was also a year of the outcry for social justice. The freshmen student doctors learned lessons from that, too. Justine Panian is a second year student who is designated general manager of the Pacific Beach clinic. She said, “We had just come off the Black Lives Matter protests. It really just exploded this entire introspection into racial injustice and health equity.”

In fact, the racial divide triggered last year inspired the creation of a new enhanced health equity curriculum at the UCSD Medical School. The curriculum is designed to engage students in how to treat people of different beliefs and backgrounds. Dr. Rodriguez said, “It just gives me such hope for the future of medicine knowing that they are going to go out there and make such a difference in the world and healthcare.”

COVID-19: UCSD medical students thrive after first year online