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Some Ohio State medical students are ready to graduate early

Eligible volunteers may join health care workforce to fight COVID-19

Note: The Board of Trustees approved the early awarding of medical degrees for students who have completed all requirements to graduate and have elected to make the commitment to engage in the current health crisis as quickly as possible. 

Medical students at The Ohio State University are preparing to graduate early and help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic continues to put significant stress on health care workers across the globe, dozens of Ohio State senior medical students have asked if they can graduate early in order to enter the workforce. The Board of Trustees will hold a special meeting Friday to consider the request.

Students who met all graduation requirements by April 3 and declare their intention to join the health care workforce are eligible for the early graduation. If the request is approved, the students will graduate April 12 – weeks before the scheduled May 3 graduation date.

Paige Hackenberger, a fourth-year medical student, is one of those volunteers. The Michigan native is scheduled to begin her residency at Northwestern University and hopes to graduate early to support her peers in the medical community. The epidemic hits close to home for Hackenberger.

“So many of my classmates have had their plans upended and changed during this pandemic, and their individual decisions have come from their own set of circumstances and obligations. For me, I realized I am connected to several potential needs through my past, present and future,” she said. “I grew up in Michigan, a state that has been overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. I have attended medical school in Ohio, a state that has demonstrated leadership in preparedness and pandemic response. And I will be attending residency in Illinois, a state with areas of high population density and growing needs related to COVID-19.”

Hackenberger said she hopes that if she can graduate early, she will be able to help reduce the burden on current health care workers. She said she would be happy to assist in clinical or non-clinical roles if needed.

“The additional support from these volunteer medical students will be indispensable in confronting the COVID-19 pandemic,” said James Rocco, interim dean of the College of Medicine. “It speaks to the culture of service at Ohio State that these students are ready to accept this early challenge and help their fellow health care workers on the front lines.”

Ohio State is not alone in considering this option. Medical schools across the country are offering an early graduation option to help confront the challenges caused by the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

The university’s proposal of an optional early graduation is in line with the Liaison Committee on Medical Education guidelines for early graduation.

Some of the 54 senior medical students eligible and interested in the proposed April 12 graduation have been contacted by institutions in Ohio and other states at which they will serve their residencies with requests that they consider an early start.

Depending on the size of the coming surge in COVID-19 cases, volunteer graduates who have matched their residencies at Wexner Medical Center could serve in a physician extender role. Residents would work with the “essential” physicians in each medical center department who can’t be reassigned and are needed to provide care for emergent outpatient visits, hospitals inpatients and consult services. The recent graduates would assist those physicians in performing their duties.

“Some of our students have dreamed about being doctors their whole lives,” said Jennifer McCallister, associate dean for medical education. “This would allow them to provide a significant contribution and give them the opportunity to help when the medical world needs them the most.”

For Hackenberger, it would be a chance to serve her community, despite the challenges and concerns facing medical professionals.

“As I think about joining the medical field during this pandemic, I still have a lot of fear and questions. Will I know what to do or how to react to situations that nobody has encountered until now? Will I be exposed or fall ill myself?” she said.

“In spite of that, I also have experienced a lot of affirmation and optimism — that science and research are more critical than ever, that studying medicine has given me the opportunity to serve others in ways I couldn’t have originally imagined, that health care is deeply interdisciplinary and requires the expertise of all providers, and that I have been trained to process, learn from and contribute to unexpected scenarios.”

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