Volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic: Early stage medical student sacrifices, professional development and resilience

Brennan, Marian, Treacy, Gordon, Quinn, Adam, Staunton, Marita, Ali, Aliya and Kennelly, Patrick (2021) Volunteering during the COVID-19 pandemic: Early stage medical student sacrifices, professional development and resilience.


Background: Volunteering during times of crisis is not unusual. Documented student involvement in a
pandemic response dates back to over a century ago when medical student volunteers were deployed in
an attempt to curtail the 1918 Spanish Flu. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant challenges to
our healthcare systems. Although most medical students were unable to gain access to hospitals for
teaching purposes, many were keen to assist the healthcare teams during the crisis.

Summary of Work: Early stage medical students at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI)
volunteered in clinical settings during the early stages of the pandemic. We asked students to reflect on
their experience with a specific focus not only on their experience, but also on their own personal and
professional development. 26 students who volunteered on intensive care unit proning teams during the
first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic were invited to participate. Reflections were collected
anonymously and analysed thematically.

Summary of Results: Students reported that they had made significant sacrifices such as isolating
themselves and/or moving out of accommodation to protect their loved ones while volunteering. Major
areas of development were in the areas of communication and team work skills. Students also identified
that their experience improved their resilience and for most students it strengthened their resolve to study
medicine with some students considering specialties related to critical care.

Discussion and Conclusions: Students experienced growth in areas of professionalism, resilience and
professional identity formation. While benefits to student personal and professional development were
clear from this study, many early students would not have had previous exposure to critically ill patients
and some students found the clinical situation challenging.

Take-home Messages: Volunteering during a pandemic has rich learning opportunities for students,
particularly in the the area of professional development. It is however important to ensure that support
structures are in place for early stage medical students volunteering in such circumstances.

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