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As Coronavirus Strains Health System, Harvard Medical School Exploring 'Fully Voluntary' Early Graduation for Fourth-Year Students

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard Medical School is developing a plan to give fourth-year students the option to graduate a month early and join the healthcare workforce.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Harvard Medical School is developing a plan to give fourth-year students the option to graduate a month early and join the healthcare workforce. By Melanie Y. Fu
By Virginia L. Ma, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard Medical School is developing a plan to give fourth-year students the option to graduate a month early and join the healthcare workforce in anticipation of a major influx of coronavirus patients.

The announcement came in the form of a Friday email to Harvard Medical School affiliates co-signed by Harvard Medical School Dean of Faculty George Q. Daley, Dean for Medical Education Edward M. Hundert, and Dean for Students Fidencio Saldaña.

The announcement follows a Wednesday meeting between Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders and the deans of several medical schools in Massachusetts, including Daley. Sudders urged the deans to graduate their fourth-year students early, with 90-day licenses provided to expedite the process of getting these students “into hospitals as soon as possible to help on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the administrators wrote in the Friday email.

According to the email, administrators held a Zoom meeting Thursday night with graduating students to discuss the option of an expedited graduation and receive their feedback.

“We are working with the University and our accrediting bodies on the details and expect to have more information to share soon,” the administrators wrote.

The trio also noted that the Medical School would not pressure any students to graduate early and join the workforce, though many have already expressed their eagerness to do so.

“They will each have to make a personal decision about whether to graduate early and respond to hospitals in Boston or in other parts of the country where absorbing early graduates as part of the workforce is being built into COVID-19 contingency plans,” the administrators wrote.

In a Friday interview with The Crimson, Daley said healthcare leaders are anticipating a “surge” in COVID-19 patients, placing a strain on the staff at hospitals across the country.

“We're deeply concerned about losing health care workers, technicians, nurses, physicians because of exposure and infection to COVID,” Daley said. “Any strategy that could reinforce the healthcare workforce I thought was very, very, very wise.”

Daley said that, while he saw the “wisdom” of expediting the graduation of medical students, leaders at the Medical School are still trying to explore its implications on students.

Rather than imposing early graduation on all students who have met the requirements, Daley said the process should be “fully voluntary.” Students can “opt in” if they want to graduate early, depending on their individual circumstances.

“Every student has a unique situation,” Daley said. “Some will have more significant concerns for family members, some will have pre-existing conditions or will be in an immunosuppressed state for whom this would add undue risk.”

Daley also mentioned several factors that might impact students’ ability to join the workforce early, including immigration status and outstanding student loans.

“We're trying to be as responsive as possible and give every student who wants it the opportunity, but we also want to be very protective of those students for whom this may represent an undue burden,” Daley said.

—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at virginia.ma@thecrimson.com.

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HealthHarvard Medical SchoolGlobal HealthCoronavirus