Massachusetts medical schools are preparing to graduate hundreds of their fourth-year students early to boost the number of doctors available to work in the state’s hospitals in preparation for a surge in coronavirus patients.
Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders this week asked Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, Tufts University, and Harvard University medical schools to graduate medical students in April, instead of waiting until May. The state has also agreed that after they graduate, they will be able to received expedited 90-day licenses.
“The health care workforce is key to us,” Sudders said during a press conference with Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday. “We’re trying to increase the cadre.”
The request comes as hospitals in Greater Boston are seeing an exponential rise in number of workers being infected with the coronavirus, from just a handful last week to more than 100 now. Hospital officials believe that the increased cases among their workforce may be due to community spread, as opposed to contact with infected patients. But the workers still need to be isolated to prevent the virus from infecting others.
The number of infected health care workers is expected to rise as the coronavirus pandemic grows in Boston and across the United States.
The state’s medical schools could put hundreds of additional doctors into the pipeline to deal with this pandemic, said Michael Collins, the chancellor of UMass Medical School. The school expects that 135 students will be able to graduate in early April.
Most of the students have completed their academic requirements and were matched with their residency hospitals last week, Collins said.
There are approximately 700 fourth-year medical students in the state and BU expects to have 192 of its students ready to graduate April 17 instead of May 17, according to BU Today, the university’s internal magazine.
“Your class is clearly graduating at one of the most medically challenging times of the last century, and will shortly be an important part of our country’s response to the COVID-19 challenge,” Boston University Medical School Dean Karen Antman wrote in a message to the fourth-year students. “We may need every physician we can get, based on what has happened in Wuhan and Italy, and what is happening in New York. The number of cases in Boston has not yet peaked. Our case numbers are still going up.”
Tufts University School of Medicine officials were unable to provide a number of fourth-year graduates who would go through the expedited process.
But Tufts interim dean Peter Bates said the fast-track graduations are an “important step” that “allows our students to begin putting their medical degrees to use and ease the stress on the health care system.”
Harvard Medical School is “actively exploring” the early graduation option, but no decisions have been made yet, according to an official there.
Collins at UMass said it’s still unclear what duties graduates will perform in the hospital, but it will likely be similar to the jobs of first-year residents. But hospitals will have to make sure that they are prepared to accept these graduates and have the appropriate protective gear and schedules for them, Collins said.
Working in area hospitals around coronavirus patients will be voluntary for these graduates, Collins said.
“It’s not a draft or conscription,” Collins said. “A lot of it depends on whether there is a need for care in a surge.”
Collins said several students have already told him they would like to help.
Collins expects that preparing the students for graduation in April to be fairly straightforward as most have completed their work. They may need a quick advanced life support training session, but at this point, students are usually taking a few weeks off and preparing to move for their residencies, he said.