By Taylor Donnelly, Jake Gross, Thuy-An Nguyen and Emily Tan
Boston University News Service
Health care workers have faced unprecedented dangers during the coronavirus pandemic, but that’s not keeping people from wanting to work in the medical field. Medical schools across the country have received a record number of applications, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
An estimated 60,000 people applied to medical school in 2021, a 17.8% increase from the year before, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Even more are expected to apply during this upcoming cycle, according to a 2021 Kaplan survey.
Some students have expressed greater motivation to step up and relieve the pressure on an industry that has lost about half a million workers since 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Students such as Emily Genga, 21, a junior studying nursing at Fairfield University in Connecticut, share this sentiment.
“I really feel like I’ve learned so much about what other nurses are going through and I do want to be able to be there to help and help in any way that I can,” said Genga. “So even though it’s kind of scary entering in this time, I think it’s something that I know I really do want to pursue.”
Other students such as Melody Li, 21, a senior in Boston University’s College of Arts and Sciences, currently studying to be a physician’s assistant, feel some pressure from the ongoing pandemic whilst entering the field.
“I always kind of knew that I wanted to go into healthcare, so before the pandemic I was really excited and hyped…and during the pandemic it was a little scary seeing everybody that was getting COVID,” said Li. “But I still knew that I wanted to do health care, that never changed.”
At Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Renata Macedo — a first-year nurse in the surgical intensive care unit — has seen more than 300 new nurses enter the field over the past few months.
“It’s a lot of nurses who haven’t experienced the severity of the pandemic,” said the 28-year-old, who joined the profession a month after completing an accelerated nursing program in May 2021. “I think that we’re coming into it with the perspective that we understand what everyone has gone through, and we want to step up to relieve some of that tension and help out with staffing shortages.”
The medical field has never been easy to enter, but the last two years have seen overrun hospital capacities, a shortage of medical supplies and a shortage of health care workers, as around one in five have quit their jobs during the pandemic, according to a poll conducted by Morning Consult.
Nurses currently in the field, such as Sarah Bessueille — a gynecologic oncology nurse who has been at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for about 10 years — have seen an increase in patients coming in with two or more medical conditions.
“Between the patients being sicker and there being fewer nurses around, it gets very busy — it’s hectic,” said the 31-year-old. “You kind of feel like you’re a chicken with your head cut off.”
Kelly Everin, 21, a junior studying nursing at Boston College talked about the concerns and stresses of the nurses she works with at Emerson Hospital.
“A lot of them have been saying that they used to enjoy their job,” said Everin. “And since like, 2020, they just dread it, and they hate it.”
Health care workers have also experienced a decline in their mental health.
“I don’t know if it’s the additional responsibilities that I have now as a nurse or the pandemic that has also impacted it, but I definitely find myself having a hard time sleeping,” said Macedo, who previously worked as a mental health specialist. “I can’t seem to kind of shut that off when I go to bed, so I think that’s been the toughest part.”
On June 14, 2021, Governor Charles Baker ordered that recent Massachusetts nursing school graduates and senior nursing students in their last semester were authorized to practice nursing, which is typically prohibited as an unlicensed practice. The order was in effect until Sep. 15, 2021.
To relieve strain on the healthcare system, programs to graduate medical students early have been popping up across the country. But some students, such as Lucy Chen, 23, a BU alumni and clinical care technician at Tufts Medical Center, have expressed concerns over how this may shape their education and experience in the medical field.
“I think there are pros and cons to that,” said Chen. “On one hand, you have more people to help, but also they’re not as experienced. It’s kind of like throwing them into the wild.”
For some who recently entered the medical field, the pandemic has pushed their education forward. This is the case for Maria Estevez, 22, a current graduate student at Boston University’s School of Public Health and a program manager in the pediatrics department at Boston Medical Center.
“The pandemic didn’t influence my decisions [to enter the medical field], but it did give me more reason — besides the ones I already had — to go into the field because the pandemic, as we saw, exacerbated existing issues,” said Estevez.
Nicole Lewis, 22, a graduate student at Boston University’s School of Public Health and a scheduling specialist in the genetics and prevention department at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, shared a similar experience.
“I initially was interested in public health after I took a class in infectious diseases, and as the pandemic ramped up I kept thinking back to that class,” said Lewis. “I saw a lot of connections to the things I was already interested in … That is why I applied into grad school and decided to go the public health route.”
The worker shortage has led to a higher job demand within the healthcare field, with hospitals having more available positions.
Boston Children’s Hospital is “normally super competitive to get a job there, but right now they’re actively recruiting,” said Everin.
While this has put more stress on the current working conditions in the medical field, it has been a silver lining for students entering the workforce.
“It definitely opened up the field,” said Chen. “There’s always been a demand for health care workers, but I guess because of the pandemic there is an increased need for them.”
“I don’t think it has been a problem since so many people have been laid off, I don’t see any problem entering the workforce. Especially having a network to rely on,” said Estevez.
On a larger scale, while the medical field has suffered due to the pandemic, it has changed the way doctors view preventative diseases and involve greater public health measures.
“I think [the public health field] has changed,” said Lewis. “It definitely has been impacted by the pandemic. I have a lot of personal relationships with health care workers within my family and would say that the atmosphere has changed. There definitely has been a shift to focus on preventative health care in terms of after the pandemic. There will be a larger focus on prevention, the environment we live in and how social structures play into health care outcomes.”
“I think the pandemic has shown us a lot of vulnerabilities in our healthcare system and how there needs to be change to then create a healthier society within our health care world,” said Lewis.
When asked if she was worried about entering the medical field right now, Chen expressed that she was less concerned because of improvements in the handling of the coronavirus.
“I would say I’m not as worried. If you’d asked me this question two years ago, I would be worried because we didn’t have a vaccine back then,” said Chen. “Now that everyone’s gotten the vaccine and the booster, even if they do get COVID, their symptoms are not as bad, and it’s something that has become like a norm in society now.”
She said that the medical field has always been difficult, but that she was hopeful the industry would improve. Chen advised that all students try to seek out clinical care experience before entering medical school.
“Entering a new environment is always stressful,” said Chen. “But I feel like, if you want to enter the healthcare field, there’s a certain expectation that you should be prepared for the unexpected.”