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I know times are difficult, but please communicate

Updated: May 28

Many medical schools around the world were closed with immediate effect. James Woolas, a final year student at Plymouth Peninsula School of Medicine and Dentistry, shares his experiences of the uncertainty this period has brought and why good communication is always vital.


“I’m supposed to start work next week and I’ve no idea where I’m supposed to turn up or what I’ll be doing”, I exasperatedly told an academic and six peers via video conference during a medical school teaching session. All other contact sessions and lectures had been cancelled.

I told them about: the email asking if I can interview for a healthcare assistant job, another message received that morning asking my availability to work as a doctor’s assistant (whatever that is?), and tomorrow I was to find out the hospital I’ve been assigned to start work as an ‘interim’ Foundation Year One Doctor…sometime next month.

They all laughed. They faced the same uncertainty.

I am just one of thousands of UK final year medical students, celebrating the half-decade slog to qualify, by fighting a pandemic. This was not how I had imagined the journey ending. We would not have the moment to walk out of hospital for the final time, no time for celebration or an obligatory graduation photo. Of course, this was OK, because there were lives being lost.

March was a strange month. In the first few weeks, we had been put under enormous pressure to complete our clinical assessments. There was real anxiety amongst colleagues that we would fail to graduate if we didn’t jump these small hurdles before COVID-19 inevitably ended our ability to safely stay on placement.

We know huge credit has to go to the exceptionally hard-working staff at our university. They found time during their covid-19 preparations to oversee what were, at least then, deemed mandatory assessments by the GMC, in order for us to graduate.

In a dramatic afternoon, I took and passed seven exams in a three-hour sitting. Shortly after, hospital placements were terminated with immediate effect Medical school finished. A week starting like any other, ended with a fast track promotion to the frontline and rumours our education building was being repurposed as an overflow morgue.

Despite the initial flurry of activity and talk of the front-line, my cohort of final year students have spent majority of the time on the side-line. Our fate was initially the same as the rest of the country: “Stay at home, wash your hands”.

The side-line, however, still embodied much of the confusion of the front-line. The news that we’d be drafted early as doctors came not from our medical school, or any other NHS body. It came from the Secretary of State for Health, live on national TV, announcing “5,500 final-year medics will move to the frontline”. I was excited – and confused. That was us, right?

"The side-line, however, still embodied much of the confusion of the front-line."

Was this as doctors or as doctor’s assistants, something else, or was this simply political spin? The BMA didn’t have the answer, they contacted us to convey they too knew nothing about it. That worried me. To learn of our deployment so abruptly and that decisions had been made without consulting our representatives, didn’t inspire confidence. In the rush for new doctors, had the safety and practicality of what we’re being asked to do truly been considered? Three weeks later and I’m still at home. Still unsure what is to be asked of me.

I make no criticism of anyone making difficult decisions in such extreme circumstances. Of course, everyone is facing their own challenges. As students, we are taught that good communication is a vital skill. My hope for the future is that our leaders can remember that too.


James Woolas

Final Year Medical Student

Plymouth Peninsula School of Medicine and Dentistry

[email protected]

The British Student Doctor Journal is starting a new series of articles to share the stories of healthcare workers and students tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you would like to share your story, from wherever you are in the world, please review the author guidelines.


#coronavirus #medicalstudent #covid19

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© 2020 The Foundation for Medical Publishing

A publication of Cardiff University Press and the official journal of the Academy of Medical Educators

ISSN: 2514-3174

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