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Brown medical students given option to graduate early due to COVID-19

Warren Alpert Medical School students can graduate six weeks early

The Alpert Medical School gave fourth-year medical students the option to graduate on April 15th, six weeks before planned, enabling them to work as residents and care for patients affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Through a collaboration with the Med School’s health system partners, Lifespan and Care New England, non-accredited clinical positions were created “in which graduating students would receive temporary licenses to practice in Rhode Island prior to beginning their residency programs,” wrote Dr. Allan Tunkel, senior associate dean for medical education at the Warren Alpert Medical School, in an email to The Herald. 

Early graduates were given the option to either work earlier in their matched residency program, or stay in Rhode Island to provide assistance to care for COVID-19 patients. More than 30 of the 132 fourth-year medical students volunteered to graduate early, with most electing to stay in Rhode Island. 

This pandemic is a challenging time in medicine, and will give our graduating students the unique opportunity to care for patients during this unprecedented time in medicine, and will prepare them for similar circumstances that they may encounter in the future as physicians,” Tunkel wrote. “Even for those not graduating early, they will still be entering residency training during a period of great challenges to patients and communities, and will be exceptionally well-prepared for the future.” 

For the past month, James Scharfen and Emily White, early graduates of the Med School, have volunteered at the Rhode Island Department of Health alongside more than 100 other Brown medical students from all four class years. Their tasks have included notifying patients who test positive for COVID-19 about their test results and investigating these cases for recent contacts. Now, they both plan to work at the Lifespan field hospital before starting their residencies in June.

Scharfen, who will begin an internal medicine residency at Brown this year, was motivated to graduate early for two reasons. “Number one, I felt that I was trained for this and that there’s a clinical need, and number two, I felt the need to really support my future team,” Scharfen said. 

White wants to make sure as well that the need for additional resources is necessary, something she believes will become clear in the next few weeks. “I am very happy to help and join the workforce,” she said. “However, I want to ensure it is with a purpose in mind, and that it is serving a need for additional physicians prior to putting myself and others at risk of exposure to COVID-19. I do not want to simply join because I can. I think whether there is a specific need will become clear in the next few weeks and we can move forward from there.” 

Cynthia Peng, another early Med School graduate, saw early graduation as the best opportunity to involve herself in the health system at a crucial moment. “Rhode Island and the Brown community have given me so much in the last three and a half years, and I want to give back,” she said.  

Working in a field hospital and on the front lines of the pandemic isn’t for everyone; for instance, students who are in close contact with the elderly, or who are living with immunocompromised family members are very aware of the increased risk. “We should be cognizant that it’s a very individual decision and that everyone is doing this for their own reasons,” Scharfen explained. 

These risks were important considerations as the students made their decision to graduate early. “I think (my family) is concerned personally for me and it was definitely a conversation we had to have,” Scharfen said. 

Peng was appreciative of how her mother was fully on board with her choice to graduate early and work with COVID-19 patients. “I am grateful that my partner, a resident in internal medicine, and my mother, an emergency psychiatrist, were extremely encouraging of my decision,” Peng said. “I am glad I have the support of my family and friends and am excited for this new undertaking — working with fellow med students-turned-colleagues.” 

Throughout the process of graduating early, students have appreciated the availability and open communication they’ve had with Med School Deans. “Alpert Medical School has equipped us to be resilient, empathetic providers — the emphasis on student well-being, knowing that this is a really crucial moment, and that in the midst of it, preserving ourselves and optimizing our emotional health is important,” Peng said. 

Alpert Medical School has also “emphasized that this is voluntary and not required in any way. Unique from other institutions graduating students ahead of time, Brown is doing so on a voluntary basis, rather than graduating all fourth year students at once” White explained. 

The early graduates confirmed their intent to graduate via email just a day before formally “graduating.” “It was — a word a lot of my classmates are using — kind of anticlimactic,” White said. “However, I find it’s more what it means to graduate than the actual process of doing so. I look forward to joining the medical community and becoming a doctor, whether I receive the official word through an email or up on a stage doesn’t matter as much.”

Peng echoed White’s sentiment. “On the day I ‘graduated’ via a one-liner email that said "you graduated today," my mom similarly sent me a one-liner: "welcome to the front lines." It certainly wasn't the frivolities of marches, speeches and champagne that a normal graduation entails, but the expedient and critical manner in which this all occurred conferred even more profound meaning,” Peng said. 


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