For what was one of the first 2020 graduations of any kind, now-MD Colleen Flanagan wore a white coat, professional attire and her slippers.

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Instead of walking across a stage on the green at University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Worcester (UMMS) campus, Flanagan watched the ceremony on a Zoom call projected on a television at her family home, in Boxborough, Massachusetts, about 20 miles from campus.

“I hadn’t actively imagined it that much, but on the actual virtual graduation day, I think it was a little emotional, thinking about what the country is going through,” Dr. Flanagan said. “I’m excited to have graduated, but there is so much more going on, it’s hard to focus on something like that.”

With public gatherings being discouraged or forbidden, 2020 graduations of any kind are likely to be canceled, rescheduled or moved online as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What we hear from the students is they found [graduation] to be a moving and inspiring ceremony, albeit strange,” said Michael F. Collins, MD, UMMS’ chancellor. “There was a lot of disappointment, but I think at the end of the day, people realize what’s important. And what’s important is that they are going to be able to help out if there’s a surge [in patients].”

Medical school graduation held virtually
Photo courtesy University of Massachusetts Medical School

From virtual graduate to real-life clinician

UMass Medical School moved up its graduation date by a month and moved the ceremony online for good reason: a need for physicians. The state is anticipating a surge of patients, and at the urging of Governor Charlie Baker, medical schools in Massachusetts expedited graduation dates for qualified students who will then serve in state health systems.

Dr. Flanagan is among 68 recent UMMS graduates who have volunteered to help in the fight against COVID-19. On March 31, she was accepting her degree. By April 7, she was walking the wards of the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center, where she’ll work as a clinician in areas of need. In late June, she’ll head west to her formal residency training in the vascular surgery program at the University of California San Francisco.

“Med students who graduated early, we’re not that different from an intern starting in July,” Dr. Flanagan said. “We are trying to help in any way we can, even the small things. We’re trying to fill gaps and appreciate the opportunity.”

For students who aren’t graduating early, there are numerous options to assist in non-clinical areas during the pandemic.

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Missed milestones

Virtual graduations are the result of an unprecedented public health emergency, and for fourth-year medical students they represent the second affected milestone of the spring, with schools canceling physical Match Day celebrations in mid-March.  

“In my speech [to graduates] I said there will be a day when they tell their children and grandchildren about the day they graduated medical school early because there was this virus,” Dr. Collins said. “And then they will go on to tell the story that therapeutics and a vaccine were discovered, and that the virus no longer exists. But that won’t make this moment [at graduation] any easier.”

The possibility that missing graduations and Match Day events will have an emotional impact on students does exist. According to Christine Sinsky, MD, how people are supported during times of acute stress impacts whether they grow from the events in a positive way and emerge stronger.

“How much this model applies to graduating medical students who miss out on important fourth-year milestones is unclear,” said Dr. Sinsky, the AMA’s vice president of professional satisfaction. “I suspect that the more meaningful roles that these graduating medical students are able to assume, the more new social supports they are able to develop in their new residency environments. And the more clear, transparent communication that exists between leaders and others at the new institutions, the more likely these students will be to emerge from this stressful time with post-traumatic stress growth rather than post-traumatic stress disorder.”

With graduating medical students stepping into their roles at a most vital time, Dr. Collins feels optimistic about the future.

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“In medicine, if and when we celebrate our accomplishments, we do it with a great amount of humility,” Dr. Collins said. “We really are a noble profession and what was being exhibited that day was a bunch of professionals putting others above themselves.”

The AMA has curated a selection of resources to assist residents and medical students during the COVID-19 pandemic to help manage the shifting timelines, cancellations and adjustments to testing, rotations and other events.

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