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COVID-19 changing how medicine is being studied on Long Island

NYU Long Island School of Medicine students talk about how COVID-19 has affected their studies.   Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost; NYU

COVID-19 has delayed NYU Long Island School of Medicine’s expansion plans but is allowing students at the region’s newest medical school a rare opportunity to study a pandemic as it unfolds.

NYU Long Island opened a year ago with 24 students, tuition-free and with a focus on preparing students to become primary-care physicians. Those students are now starting hospital rotations, and 24 new students started in the program last week with lectures online.

“This is a pandemic that is happening in real time,” said Dr. Steven Shelov, the Mineola school's dean. “It’s not in a book they’re reading about.”

NYU Long Island had held only online classes for the past few months and, with the state now allowing in-person classes with precautions, shifted discussion groups to a large conference room when first-year students began classes July 27, Shelov said. Likewise, students at other medical schools on the Island had been studying remotely, with plans for the upcoming term for a mix of in-person instruction and virtual learning.

Students at NYU Long Island are learning about vaccine and treatment development in their classes as they occur. Epidemiology classes will include COVID-19 cases. Students will assist with COVID-19 research by, for example, crunching numbers or helping sign up patients for clinical trials, Shelov said.

Second-year student Meenakshi Krishna, 25, who grew up in Williston Park, said “entering the field at this time makes us appreciate the sacrifices of physicians and makes us realize how much goes into being a physician.”

For Megan Bader, 26, a second-year student who grew up in Garden City, studying to become a physician during the beginning of the pandemic was “humbling” because students saw how doctors and scientists struggled to understand COVID-19 and how to best treat patients.

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Shelov said a key lesson from this is that doctors don’t always have all the answers and, in the case of COVID-19, “We learned from our mistakes.”

First-year student Nabilah Nishat, 23, of Jamaica, Queens, said COVID-19's disproportionate effect on people of color illustrates the toll of health disparities. Conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which leave people more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19, stem in part from a lack of access to health care, especially preventive care, Nishat said. As a primary-care physician, Nishat wants to work to reduce disparities.

Mustapha Touray, 24, an immigrant from The Gambia and a first-year student, said the pandemic “reinforced why we need diversity in medicine, and it highlighted my personal goals of going into medicine, to serve underserved communities.”

People are more likely to adhere to physicians’ advice, and reduce their risk of conditions like high blood pressure, if they can relate to doctors, “and coming from the same racial and economic background, their experiences will be similar,” Touray said. “So at the patient-doctor level, the interaction will be smoother.”

Santiago Luis, 26, a first-year student who grew up in East Meadow and in Florida, said his only frustration with studying during the coronavirus era is that he can’t yet start treating COVID-19 patients.

“Most people who come into this profession are coming in with a want or desire, almost a biological desire, to help people,” he said. “That’s where my feelings are right now. I really want to get out there and start helping.”

Luis is one of 24 new students who started classes last week, joining the 24 students from the school’s inaugural class beginning their second year. NYU Long Island’s original plan was to increase the size of this year's incoming first-year class to 32 and move to 40 first-year students in 2021, Shelov said. Long term, the school plans to have 40 students in each of the three graduating classes in the three-year program, for a total of 120. But increasing the number of new first-year students by eight this year would have made social distancing for in-person classes more difficult, he said.

Another barrier to expanding the first-year class by eight students is that it was unclear if enough money would have been raised to keep the school tuition-free, in part because revenue from NYU Langone physician practices that help fund the school have fallen during COVID-19, Shelov said.

NYU Long Island and the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in Manhattan are believed to be the only medical schools in the country to waive tuition for students, said Julie Fresne, senior director for student financial and career services at the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

The pandemic also has changed the way students at Long Island’s three other medical schools study.

At the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, the 280 first-year students will split into “pods” of 20 to 25, so they can attend discussion groups and labs in person while practicing social distancing, said Dr. Jerry Balentine, the college’s dean. In anatomy classes, there will be one student per cadaver rather than several, he said.

Pods will attend all in-person classes together, so if one student becomes infected with the coronavirus, only members of that pod would be quarantined, not the entire college, Balentine said.

At Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine, the 136 first-year students will learn online through the end of the year, with a mix of online lectures and in-person, socially distanced discussion groups starting in January, said Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Renaissance. Some labs will be in-person; others will be remote.

At the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, the 103 first-year students will for the first few weeks study two days on campus, three days remotely, and then transition to full-time in-person classes, with masks, social distancing and other precautions, Dr. Samara Ginzburg, the school’s associate dean for case-based learning, said in an email. Second-year students will have all courses in-person.

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