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LI medical, nursing students assist in coronavirus fight

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, senior vice president of health

Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, senior vice president of health sciences and dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, talks to fourth-year medical student Rajapillai Pillai. Credit: Stony Brook University

They're not doctors and nurses yet. But they're helping in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.

Students at Long Island medical and nursing schools are getting a jump-start on their careers by helping to conduct research and speak to patients via computer while doctors and nurses on the front lines of the pandemic treat patients struggling with the disease, which has ravaged hundreds of people on Long Island and thousands across the country.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Friday called on medical and nursing schools statewide to make their students available to help patients.

Even before the governor's request, the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University had found ways for its students to help. Third- and fourth-year students — some only months away from receiving their degrees — don't work directly with COVID-19 patients, but conduct online research and speak to patients via telemedicine computer hookups.

“Look, they’re going to graduate in three months," Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of the school of medicine and senior vice president for health sciences, said of fourth-year students. "In three months, they’re going to be MDs."

Stony Brook began seeking ways for its students to help as the virus began making its way onto Long Island, Kaushansky said, adding that the experience will help students complete their training. 

The telehealth program provides "experiential learning" for students while freeing up Stony Brook doctors to directly help patients, he said, adding students work with mentors while speaking to patients over computer lines.

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“If you want to make sure that Mrs. Jones is in fact taking her high blood pressure medicine … we can have our students visit with her via our telehealth services,” Kaushansky said.

A spokesman for the Barbara H. Hagan School of Nursing and Health Sciences at Molloy College said some alumni, graduate students and faculty are working in emergency rooms and testing sites, and undergraduates are working or volunteering as nursing assistants.

Students in Long Island’s four physician assistant programs also are part of the effort to battle coronavirus, said Maureen C. Regan, president of the New York State Society of Physician Assistants.

Some European nations have asked medical schools to fast-track their students — speeding up the assessment process to graduate doctors sooner so they can begin treating patients.

That idea has not gained traction in this country. The Association of American Medical Colleges, which grants accreditation to Stony Brook and other American medical schools, last week advised schools not to let students directly assist coronavirus patients. In a March 17 letter, the academy said the policy was to protect students and conserve critical medical supplies for doctors and nurses.

An academy spokesman said Tuesday the group does not plan to alter the guidelines.

Kaushansky said Stony Brook's student doctors and nurses nonetheless help by performing research — both in labs and via computer databases — and could work with non-coronavirus patients who pose less risk to those tending to their care.

"They’re going to be as safe there as they are in a grocery store,” he said.

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