Junior medical students in a pandemic: an untapped resource

Aman Dhaliwal,1 Karlee Searle,1 Danielle Martin1,2

1Temerty Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada; 2Department of Family and Community Medicine, Women’s College Hospital. Ontario Canada

Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed health care systems in an unprecedented way. There are far-reaching impacts, including in medical education.

In Canada, the increase in clinical demands led to changes in health care infrastructure, requiring physicians, residents, and senior medical students to step into new roles. This “all-hands-on-deck” approach was essential to pandemic response but has tended not to include junior (pre-clerk) medical students. How do we best utilize the skills of junior medical students in a pandemic or emergency situation when the existing frameworks do not accommodate this?

Junior medical students face a dilemma: they are well-equipped with the key attributes to become successful physicians but lack the necessary clinical skills to serve a meaningful role on the frontlines. In response, and despite a lack of official guidance, many junior medical students have forged their own role in supporting the community through various student-led initiatives. This experience has lessons to teach about how the medical student community can be marshalled in future emergency response initiatives.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, it became evident that junior medical students had a strong desire to participate in pandemic relief measures. Despite the limited scope of their clinical abilities, Canadian medical students rapidly began uniting to establish community supports on a voluntary basis. Across Canada, over 150 student-led initiatives were started to assist the community and support frontline workers through the pandemic.1 Many of these initiatives shed light on the inequities faced by marginalized individuals in the pandemic and worked to mobilize community resources to better support these groups. For example, the COVID-19 Women’s Initiative focused on supporting women and gender minorities who experienced an increase in intimate partner violence during lockdown conditions in Canada. This group raised $30,000 and collected over 22,000 items for 35 women’s shelters across Canada in six months.2 Other junior medical student initiatives focused on partnering with seniors to address senior isolation, sourcing personal protective equipment, and assisting frontline workers with life tasks such as grocery shopping and child care.3 Undeterred by their inability to help on the frontlines, these students banded together to make a powerful impact in their communities. 

These medical student-led initiatives required students to augment and practise the CanMEDs competencies of advocacy, communication, collaboration, and leadership.4 Although the health advocate role is a core role of the CanMEDs competency framework, integrating health advocacy into medical school curricula has been challenging.5 One of many reasons for this may be time constraints with respect to teaching, illustrating, and responding to the social determinants of health.6 During the COVID-19 pandemic, time constraints for many pre-clerkship medical students were eased as curriculum requirements were either cancelled or moved to an online format. This may have opened up space for students to, in essence, build their own advocacy curriculum.

Medical programs that provide voluntary learning opportunities to work with underserved and marginalized groups allow students to better understand the social determinants that result in health disparities, as well as the ways in which health advocacy can be practically applied.7 These skills turned out to be important for short-term relief during a pandemic, and likely also for the long-term development of these future physicians.

While there are guidelines for ways that senior medical students can contribute to reducing the effects of the pandemic directly, there is a lack of guidance around the contributions of junior medical students. We propose three ways by which Canadian medical schools can facilitate junior medical student community involvement in pandemic and emergency situations.

First, medical schools can provide education and training to students regarding the wide range of non-clinical needs of a population during pandemics and other emergencies. Integrating disaster training into medical school curricula will increase student preparedness and improve knowledge and skills prior to a disaster.8 This training could point out the capabilities of junior medical students (as well as other junior trainees across nursing and health disciplines), to increase their sense of agency in disaster response.

Second, medical schools could provide curriculum flexibility in a pandemic or other emergency situation to allow students to engage in voluntary community support initiatives. Junior medical students who have been given the time and flexibility to pursue professional endeavours outside of the core curriculum exhibit increased productivity and sustained interest in their topic of choice.9 Furthermore, this flexibility alleviates the time constraints, which frequently act as a barrier to medical student engagement in advocacy work.

Lastly, a unified approach to the role of the junior medical student as part of “whole system response” can promote community engagement to all Canadian junior medical students. Current CFMS guidelines include a role for a pandemic response for senior medical students but neglect to provide a role for junior medical students. Further statements and guidance from national medical education bodies on Disaster Management Plans should expand their guidelines so that Canadian medical schools can prepare junior medical students to be active participants, living up to their full potential as people with time, energy, and a commitment to the health of their communities.10

Junior medical students are an untapped resource during emergencies like pandemics when the societal need for effectively diverting resources is at its greatest. We have a shared opportunity to further explore the ways in which junior medical students’ skills can be translated into meaningful community engagement during an emergency situation, and to accommodate this into established medical education frameworks. 


  1. Lu K, Schellenberg J. COVID-19 updates [Internet]. Canadian Federation of Medical Students. Available from: https://www.cfms.org/who-we-are/covid-19
  2. Parsons C. U of T med students assist women’s shelters during COVID-19 [Internet]. Faculty of Medicine. 2020. Available from: https://md.utoronto.ca/news/u-t-med-students-assist-womens-shelters-during-covid-19
  3. Bowden, S. COVID-19: Canadian medical students ready to step up. Univ Tor Med J. 2020;97(3):e8-e11.
  4. CanMEDS: Better standards, better physicians, better care. CanMEDS Framework. The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Available from: https://www.royalcollege.ca/rcsite/canmeds/canmeds-framework-e
  5. Hubinette M, Ajjawi R, Dharamsi S. Family Physician Preceptors’ Conceptualizations of Health Advocacy, Implications for Medical Education. Acad Med. 2014;89(11):e1502-e1509. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0000000000000479
  6. Hancher-Rauch H, Gebru Y, Carson A. Health advocacy for busy professionals: effective advocacy with little time. Health Promot. 2019;20(4):489-493. https://doi.org/10.1177/1524839919830927
  7. Borouman S, Stein M, Jay M, Shen J, Hirsh M, Dharamsi S. Addressing the health advocate role in medical education. BMC Med Ed. 2020;20(1). http://doi.org/10.1186/s12909-020-1938-7
  8. Earnest M, Wong S, Frederico S. Perspective: Physician advocacy: what is it and how do we do It? Acad Med. 2010;85(1):63-67. https://doi.org/10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181c40d40
  9. Peacock J, Grande J. A flexible, preclinical, medical school curriculum increases student academic productivity and the desire to conduct future research. Biochem Mol Biol Educ. 2015;43(5):384-390. http://doi.org.10.1002/bmb.20875
  10. Cfms.org. 2021. [Internet] Available from: https://www.cfms.org/files/position-papers/2015%20CFMS%20Disaster%20Management.pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *