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Examining final year medical students during a pandemic

2 Apr 2020
Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, UCC: Ann O’Donovan, Undergraduate Coordinator; Ruth Devenney, Postgraduate Coordinator and Louise Riordan, Manager

The approach to Final Medical Examinations in Obstetrics and Gynaecology had to be transformed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Students were no longer allowed access to hospitals, exams were condensed over one day rather than four and brought forward almost a month.

The Final Medical Examinations in Obstetrics and Gynaecology were due to take place on the week commencing 27 April 2020, with practical clinical exams to take place over four days in CUMH, UHK, STGH and UHW.   However, on 6pm Thursday 12 March, all schools and universities were forced to shut their doors as part of national measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.   Students were no longer allowed access to hospitals and patients were not allowed visitors.

Over the following week and days, the arrangements for these exams were discussed and on the 16 March, it was eventually decided that students would start their Final Med Exams on Friday 20 March, continue over the weekend and conclude on Tuesday 24 March 2020.   This meant the Obstetrics and Gynaecology exams would now take place over one day (on Saturday 21 March) rather than the usual four, in conjunction with Paediatrics. The decision to move the exams forward was based on a number of factors and included the indications that the healthcare system could be overloaded in a few weeks’ time due to a surge of COVID-19 cases and the healthcare system might need these new graduates earlier than usual.

Due to the practical nature of the exam and the volume of students to examine, an online assessment was not feasible.  The exam (incorporating clinical discussion and written questions) would take the form of an OSCE exam (an objective structured clinical examination) held in one day, with various stations set up for the students in the Brookfield Health Science Complex (BHSC).  Obviously, there could be no patients involved this year.  Consultants and junior doctors were contacted immediately to request their assistance as Examiners for the Final Med OSCE’s outlining the changes from previous years.

Bed featuring a pillow rather than a patient for exams 2020 due to COVID-19

OSCE exam

OSCE exam questions were prepared by Dr Rebecca Cole and overseen by Dr Mairead O’Riordan and Professor John R. Higgins with support from our external examiner Professor Shaun Brennecke (University of Melbourne).  There were 8 ‘stations’ with time allocated per station of 7.5 mins and over 200 final med students were due to take part.  Timing was critical!

Tweet regarding exams for medical students during COVID-19 2020

Social distancing and precautions taken

Due to the virulent nature of the COVID-19 virus, strict precautions were put in place in Brookfield on the exam day. These included the provision of hand sanitiser, gloves, facemasks and social distancing measures.  There were 16 examiners conducting the exam for Obs & Gynae.  The attending students were split up into groups of four and allocated a specific attendance time. They were then held in two lecture rooms until they were called to attend the exam. Candidates were then brought directly to the exam room by staff and met with the invigilators who briefed them. Once the exam was completed, they took the usual precautions i.e. sanitising hands and after signing out, they left the building.

The UCC Medicine Class of 2020 all graduated virtually on April 17 2020 and were offered internships in the Irish health system.   Those that accepted started on May 25 2020.

In contrast, the remaining teaching and examining for our fourth year medical students and our Masters students were held online – including teaching, presentations and OSCEs.  The flexibility shown by our clinical teaching and administrative staff alongside the support from the School of Medicine and College of Medicine and Health was tremendous.

We wish our new graduates the best of luck in their future careers and look forward to welcoming back the students in the new academic year.  How that will look considering COVID-19 restrictions will be determined over the summer.

Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology

An Roinn Obstatraice agus Gínéiceolaíochta

Cork University Maternity Hospital, 5th Floor, Wilton, Cork, Ireland