Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the Dothan Eagle's 2020 Progress edition in October.
If any industry could be prepared for a pandemic like the one the novel coronavirus generated in 2020, it would be the medical profession.
The response Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine officials quickly generated in March and April emulates a standard level of preparedness, though the virus inflicted a variety of logistical and regulatory challenges, said Dr. Philip Reynolds, ACOM’s associate dean of student services.
“We have a great director of campus safety (Dr. MaryAnn May), and she started watching the CDC and ADPH (Alabama Department of Public Health) guidelines,” he said. “We watched what other colleges were doing with a move to virtual learning. We had to make a decision of should we continue classes and when to continue classes.
“We flipped a switch on (a) Friday. The staff went home for the weekend, and then when they returned on Monday, we were fully virtual.”
While ACOM quickly adapted and leadership has since implemented some in-person classes, faculty there say the institution continues to produce high-quality doctors.
“It’s been a challenge to cope with the different ways of training, but we’ll meet the objectives,” said ACOM Dean Dr. James C. Jones. “Without a doubt (current students) are getting a perspective that students before them never had. They are certainly gaining helpful skills that will give them additional insight into telemedicine.”
“I think this will help them to be more adaptable in real-life scenarios as their careers progress,” Reynolds added.
Teaching challenges, changes
While the change to a fully virtual curriculum late in the spring semester seemed seamless from the outside, ACOM officials conquered a few hurdles in order to keep the semester going.
The main challenge was regulatory as accrediting bodies had never previously allowed medical school classes to be taught fully virtually, Reynolds said. When the pandemic raged, those bodies relaxed those restrictions, but ACOM and other schools had to create and submit acceptable teaching practices that still ensured quality education.
Fortunately the pandemic-related shutdowns occurred relatively late in the semester, which meant first- and second-year students had obtained a majority of the knowledge and experience needed to conduct their labs virtually, Reynolds said. Students only needed to find a family member or trusted partner on which to practice the skills needed.
That changed for the Fall 2020 semester with a new class of students who did not possess the necessary knowledge or experience for virtual lab work. Reynolds said ACOM staff spent the summer analyzing ways to bring students on campus safely, and some students now physically attend classes at ACOM once or twice a week.
“We went through every room and determined the capacity,” he said. “Fortunately, we didn’t have many challenges with space. We modified our curriculum as far as social distancing is concerned.”
As far as the instructional material in classes, Jones said instructors placed a stronger emphasis on the proper use of personal protective equipment.
“How do we deal with infectious diseases — that’s something that is taught in medical schools nationwide,” he said. “The scope determines whether it’s a pandemic or not. You can have localized flu outbreaks, and that is endemic to an area.
“We had to make sure they knew how to properly use PPE to handle a COVID-19 patient or a possible COVID-19 patient.”
Wave of the future?
Osteopathy is a hands-on way to practice medicine. Many doctors of osteopathy operate in family or internal medicine clinics, and examinations can involve manipulation of muscles and joints to ensure potential underlying medical conditions are discovered in a timely manner.
Given that nature, the COVID-19 pandemic provided osteopathic colleges an elevated level of challenges. Yet ACOM adjusted well and has created a plan that works for the current infection and mortality rates.
Will the implementation of fully virtual classes — where possible — last into an age where the novel coronavirus has been quelled? Jones believes the answer is yes and no.
“We have definitely learned new ways to teach, and some of that will carry forward,” he said. “But it’s next to impossible to replace those hands-on, bedside lessons that are so valuable.”
However instruction looks moving forward, Reynolds remains confident that ACOM will adapt and continue to graduate high-quality students that often buoy rural communities like the Wiregrass area. He cites recent history, the academic support services staff and the quality of students the school attracts as key reasons.
“We have a wonderful division of academic support services that were there talking to students, talking through the changes,” he said. “These students were never fazed by the changes. I think (the adjustments) have been very beneficial to them.”