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Harvard Medical School, Partners HealthCare Criticized for Email Requesting Medical Student Volunteers

Harvard Medical School received criticism for an email to fourth-year medical students this week.
Harvard Medical School received criticism for an email to fourth-year medical students this week. By Camille G. Caldera
By Camille G. Caldera and Virginia L. Ma, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard Medical School and Partners HealthCare came under fire this week for an email asking fourth-year medical students to volunteer at the Boston Hope medical center, a recently-opened 1000-bed COVID-19 recovery center.

The Medical School told its fourth-year students on April 17 that the volunteer opportunity — which is open to graduating students at medical schools across Boston — could serve as an “ultimate capstone” before they began their internships.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a once in a lifetime challenge that will define for our generation what is really important both professionally and personally,” the email read.

Partners HealthCare created Boston Hope in collaboration with Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Boston HealthCare for the Homeless, the United States military.

Rich Copp, a spokesperson for Partners HealthCare, wrote in an email to The Crimson that the call from Harvard for additional volunteers was “part of this community effort.”

The opportunity comes after Medical School leadership began to explore the option of allowing fourth year students to graduate early and begin residency ahead of schedule in response to the strain of coronavirus on the healthcare system.

This program is distinct: participants will not have graduated, and will be volunteering in their capacity as medical students, rather than working as medical residents.

Critics on social media took issue with the wording of the email, in addition to some aspects of the volunteer program itself.

Michael A. McClurkin — a current resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital and a recent graduate of Harvard Medical School — said that he took issue with the phrase “ultimate capstone.” He said he feared students would feel compelled to volunteer for fear of missing out on an opportunity.

Mudit Chowdhary — a resident at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago — wrote on Twitter that the email was “emotional blackmail encouraging impressionable medical students to work for free.”

“This is a very serious situation around the country right now and the world,” Chowdhary said in an interview. “The phrasing made it seem like this is just like a happy go lucky, ‘let's go do it’ type of interaction.”

Chowdhary and McClurkin also expressed concerns over the fact that students were being asked to volunteer without receiving salaries, stipends, or additional insurance.

“It's a real risk to your life, and a job that gives a real risk to your life should not be volunteered for. It should be paid,” Chowdhary said.

Reflecting on his experience at the start of residency, McClurkin said he feared the experience might be “traumatic” rather than educational.

“It was very difficult, and it wasn't during a pandemic and I just can't imagine being in a field hospital in a pandemic, if you're just starting and there's not systems in place to really help you navigate through that transition from student to physician,” he said.

The email to students provided a detailed description of their role as volunteers, stating they would receive funding for transportation to shifts at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center along with appropriate personal protective equipment.

“Each student will be working directly with a clinical supervisor and up to 6 COVID-19 patients who they will be responsible for the care, paperwork and follow-up for,” the email read.

Those who decide to volunteer will need to complete basic life support and personal protective equipment training before starting and participate in regular group debriefings and wellness check-ins on site, per the email.

The email to students also said they would have access to testing in case of illness or exposure and that they would receive detailed information on what to do if they are sick.

Eighteen students have signed up to volunteer for eight available slots, Harvard Medical School spokesperson Laura DeCoste wrote in an email.

“We understand that not everyone feels called to this type of volunteer service, and we are proud of all of our students and respect their individual decisions,” DeCoste wrote. “We are glad that many of those who volunteered will be able to contribute in this meaningful way.”

Lisa E. Simon — a fourth-year student at the Medical School who has volunteered for the program — said she shared some other students’ concerns but still felt it was important to volunteer.

“These sorts of offers are really difficult to make to people, both because people might feel compelled to participate in something that has risk for them, and because we need to have structural protections in place to make sure people can take care of patients safely,” Simon, a former Dental School instructor, said.

Simon also said she thinks that the Medical School and Partners HealthCare had good intentions.

“I don't think that the hospital system is in any way trying to exploit students,” Simon said. “It runs up against these really tough issues surrounding student roles versus labor practices and even administrative barriers surrounding licensure. I think this isn't an issue of malign intent, but it's nonetheless very difficult.”

Correction: April 22, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rush University Medical Center is in New York. In fact, it is in Chicago.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

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

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