First-year medical students spend many hours in the laboratory where they learn human anatomy by sight and touch, a memorable hands-on experience that lasts a lifetime. But this year, things will be different. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, classes this fall will be going virtual. What impact will this have on the class of 2024?
Mark Jay Zucker, M.D. is clinical professor of medicine at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School and vice-chair of the Cardiovascular Network of the American College of Chest Physicians. In a thought-provoking op-ed piece at MedpageToday.com (July 6), Dr. Zucker makes the case that going virtual is “probably unnecessary and certainly detrimental to doctors’ education.”
By now, says Dr. Zucker, the medical community is familiar with “the consequences of instant, widespread dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic by individuals and self-ordained experts — mass anxiety.”
He acknowledges, however, that “it would be irresponsible to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is of little concern” but “it would be equally irresponsible to blithely accept the contrarian and alarming statements by politicians and news reporters, without placing the pandemic in context.”
Widespread epidemics are certainly not new. “By historical standards,” says Dr. Zucker, “COVID-19 is no more lethal than many of the more recent pandemic viral infections.” However, this is the first pandemic that is taking place in a media-obsessed world in which information, whether shaped by science or politics, fact or fiction, is being instantly transmitted to millions of anxious Americans. At the same time, this is the first pandemic that has kept medical students out of the classroom and laboratory.
“To respond appropriately to COVID-19, one needs to understand prior 20th century pandemics,” says Dr. Zucker. Based on projections by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the influenza pandemic of 1957-58 is actually quite similar to the current pandemic in several ways: 116,000 Americans died, a case fatality rate of 0.27%. Nearly 25% of Americans were infected. Assuming a similar percentage of today’s U.S. population becomes infected with COVID-19, the projected number of American deaths will be approximately 223,000.
Another influenza outbreak occurred in 1968, causing an estimated 100,000 deaths, mostly in the elderly. That figure today, when adjusted for U.S. population growth, would be 165,000 deaths, an estimated fatality rate of 0.1 percent.
Dr. Zucker concludes that “infections will inevitably occur, they will spread despite our best efforts, and humans will succumb.” To effectively address this reality, there must be a “willingness to make policy decisions based upon science and data,” not on media-driven anxiety.