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Pandemic as a Trigger for Reform of Health Professionals Training

ISSUE 2020
No 15
Release 01 May 2020
By FINDLAY Ian*, PhD; CHHEM Sirika**, PharmD, and CHHEM Rethy***, MD, PhD (Edu), PhD (His)

SARS-CoV-2 leads to COVID-19, a new disease that is a mild illness for the vast majority of people. It is nonetheless resulting in havoc across the world – hundreds of thousands of deaths, increased poverty and subsequent health impacts, restricting of international borders, economic devastation including major trade disruption and job losses, plummeting of the stock market, and closing of universities and schools.

For political leaders, their tough decisions will be judged only by hindsight, whilst there is already much discussion on whether “the cure is worse than the disease”. Many countries are in lockdown, but will a subsequent economic collapse, job losses and social isolation lead to unintended consequences? Locally, what actions should Cambodia (and other developing countries) take – especially when healthcare resources are already limited? What should the priorities be?

Universities should be trusted sources of health information and they should strive to teach the proper skills and mindset for work during a pandemic, to the next generation of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, midwives, and laboratory technicians. The purpose of this commentary is to review the options for universities that train and educate health professionals, with a particular focus on classroom teaching, rather than laboratory and clinical training.

How would COVID-19 disrupt the education of healthcare professionals?

Once the government announced university and school closures as a precautionary management tactic, universities were immediately closed off to both students and non-essential staff. In order to maintain morale and the commitment of academic and administrative staff, financial measures need to be crafted to continue paying staff in full during the school lockdown. However, this is easier said than done in view of emerging financial challenges.

A pandemic generates high levels of fear among staff and students. In order to mitigate the mental stress and anxiety associated with the virus outbreak, health professionals are best positioned to provide authoritative, reliable, truthful, and balanced information to staff, students and the general public. Online communication is necessary to all staff, students and contacts with the most up-to-date information about precautionary measures (Ministry of Health and WHO hygiene guidelines). Information should be posted extensively throughout the campus and on social media. Although online education is appealing in context of social distancing, heath professional education also requires face-to-face teaching and direct contact with patients.

How are universities responding to the COVID-19 disruption?

COVID-19 is not only a powerful disrupter of the education system, but also a promoter of innovative teaching and learning processes. In a short period of time, it has triggered a forced digital transformation of educational delivery. An enlightened and successful leadership is required to shepherd this revolutionary approach, despite the challenges of an overly long period of inertia and procrastination. Universities with conservative figureheads and those driven by profit more than academic excellence, will disappear. Only those that are student- focussed and evolve quickly to the sweeping changes imposed by the virus will survive, Universities must find ways to maintain the continuity of the education and training of healthcare professionals by expanding existing online delivery. The effort and investment in this digital transformation journey must be a survival imperative, particularly if universities need to remain closed for an extended period. In order to optimize the crossover to online learning, faculty development programs and student training using digital platforms, must be quickly multiplied.

How would online learning impact future healthcare professionals?

The digital (and critical thinking) skills developed during online learning and the “natural talent” of the millennial-professional will prepare them to take advantage of the rapid emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI-assisted health). For example, telehealth combined with AI technology can assist doctors in decision-making for remote and regional patients. In addition, AI deep learning algorithms can use CT (Computed Tomography) images to screen pulmonary changes in detecting and staging the severity of COVID-19.

COVID-19 as a teacher of values?

Beyond teaching and mentoring health professional students in their fundamental skills and attitudes according to the ethics and standards of their respective professions, universities should also reconsider their mission -improving public and global health – as a foundation for their training. This applies to doctors, dentists, pharmacists, nurses, midwives and medical technologists. All must be aware that their duty extends beyond hospital walls and beyond their future specialties, whether they become an ophthalmologist, an orthodontist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner. All shall acknowledge the importance of public health and epidemic mitigation, to avoid the fiasco currently seen in rich and technologically advanced countries.

It is of the utmost importance to address basic measures such as hygiene rules and protective gear to protect the frontline healthcare workers and conduct a massive scale of testing among the population. To do so, we need a whole-of-society approach in which university has some roles to play. Some students from the university of health sciences have voluntarily participated in the national campaign against the pandemic. Some have produced and distributed thousands of litres of hand sanitizer. Some have used social platform to raise public awareness.

What are the policy options for the university?

In response to the current pandemic and digital technology advancements, several university policy options could be considered. Firstly, develop and implement a strategy for its digital transformation. Secondly, establish lecturers’ and administrators’ development programs in digital leadership. Thirdly, build digital platforms for teaching and research in health sciences. Fourthly, embrace modern teaching methodologies including training staff and students in online and flipped learning. Finally, emphasize public/global health at the core of their curriculum.

During such a disruptive global pandemic, a university can minimise disruptions by continuing to support its staff, students and developing online learning and activities, through careful planning. The lessons are simple – be prepared, make contingency plans, and act quickly when required. These lessons are life lessons. We need to learn from this pandemic tragedy, for us to grow stronger and be better prepared for whatever the future holds.

The views expressed are the authors’ own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Vision Institute.