Manager Post: Internships in Healthcare During the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Monalisa Tayama Okpaise-Hughes
A lot of people don’t have access to healthcare, but access is only one part of the many hindrances to wellness in the US. We also need more well-trained professionals and a strong support system. That’s why internships in healthcare are so important.
My name is Monalisa, and I’m a professional healthcare worker and unit manager at a large hospital in Maryland. I oversee other healthcare staff (nurses) functions and follow up on patient treatment and care in my unit. My hospital typically hires between 10 and 17 interns each year, and our internship program runs for two consecutive semesters. When interns arrive, I’m there to introduce them to the health center structure. They come in from the academic field with a rush of energy. “But you have to be patient and gentle around here,” I tell them, while at the same time explaining what is expected of them and their responsibilities. Then, I hand them over to their potential mentors/practitioners and team.
How the healthcare system has changed due to COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a strain on the healthcare system that wasn’t there before, and this has had a far-reaching impact.
Previously, medicine was primarily administered in person, but in-person treatment has been drastically reduced. At my hospital, we’ve adopted the telemedicine system, which does not place a patient at risk of infection, but has other shortcomings.
Access to healthcare was already a problem, and in a pandemic, we’ve now added a major shortage of medical supplies to the existing issues. Even having access to healthcare does not guarantee that we have enough testing supplies for all patients to get treated.
In addition, if you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that healthcare professionals are dealing with psychological distress, depression, and moderately high anxiety right now. This is usually rare, but now there are feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability.
How can students get an internship in healthcare during this time?
Commonly, a rewarding and satisfying career in healthcare starts with securing a good internship. You need one where you’ll have good mentorship, real-world experiences, and valuable hands-on training. Hands-on experience prepares you for a variety of patient-care environments.
If you want to get an internship in healthcare, start by going through top universities for program opportunities. Then, move on to top hospitals and healthcare facilities. Healthcare programs like to hire interns that have previous working experience through part-time or remote jobs. These types of experiences show your passion, drive, and commitment.
We don’t want students to miss out on valuable real-world experience during this time. If you can’t get a regular internship during this time, there are two primary ways to intern in healthcare today:
While our facility is keeping in-person internships, many facilities are canceling their internship programs due to the risk of in-person contact. A few employers have decided to move their work online and have interns work remotely.
Find out if you can take advantage of a remote job by speaking with the program manager. This is a great option for interning at research laboratories, doing data analysis roles, and providing survey input.
Some employers find it easier to offer students project assignments that are short-term during this time. That way, students can work on different projects from different employers. This not only builds students’ skill sets, but it also helps them gain practical experience. Micro-internships are very similar to an actual internship program, and we’re doing them this summer.
Micro-internship projects vary. At my hospital, we have had a lot of patients via telehealth. People call in and get diagnosed over the phone, and a practitioner can get about 12 calls in an hour. We wanted to determine what most people were calling about, so we made that into an option for a micro-internship. Additionally, we needed a record of the names and addresses for our database. We set up a project to transcribe every audio call, and then sort through and itemize the patients’ request. When done daily, this could take up to 20 hours/week, and we have had three interns work on the project so far.
If students don’t get an internship, what else can they do to develop their skill set in the healthcare industry?
- Build career-ready skills: Having excellent verbal and written communication skills is a mainstay on most CVs. If you didn’t get an internship in healthcare this summer, it’s a good time to build on those types of skills. Communication skills are crucial to improve interaction among practitioners.
- Stress management and empathy: Experiencing burnout is almost second nature in healthcare. This is a result of managing stress poorly. Empathy helps workers to treat patients with kindness and understanding. It’s a great quality in the healthcare industry. Both of these are important when it comes to improving your mental health, and this is key.
How have you changed your internship program due to COVID-19?
When you need help or in case of an emergency, you want to have access to a health care system with great people, trained to respond in a crisis. This pandemic has introduced a society that is less ready for new viruses and an industry more focused on disease correction than prevention.
We believe strongly in the importance of the internship experience for students, so we are still hiring the same number of student interns during this time. For us, the program not only aims to build hands-on, real-world knowledge for these students, but it also helps to affirm their interest in starting a career in healthcare. They get to learn the positives and negatives of their potential field and make the best decisions based on that information.
Usually, the internship experience consists of getting familiar with the roles and responsibilities associated with the daily work of a healthcare professional, and then working on various activities and projects. But the pandemic has overwhelmed our hospital, and it has affected the internship program.
At the risk of overwhelming the system, we have had to put routine services on hold. We made a number of strategic shifts to manage our limited resources and provide the greatest benefit to patients.
The internship program has had to accommodate. Now, our internship program includes hours of education and preparation regarding COVID-19. Typical intern responsibilities include:
- Documenting admitted patients in the outpatient department. In this pandemic, interns are deployed to our COVID call centers and wards. Our interns are specially educated on professional and ethical treatment.
- Assisting in clinical procedures in the ward, Emergency Outpatient dept, Regular Outpatient dept, Imaging and Radiology department, operating theater, and other departments, as specified by practitioners or the unit manager.
- Drafting occasional progress reports.
- Ensuring proper coordination of clinical and laboratory investigations and gathering and documenting results. During the pandemic, this workload has quadrupled.
- Drafting discharge summaries, which are overseen by practitioners.
In normal years, interns leave our internship program having garnered a wealth of medical experience. This is a result of various cross-departmental tasks and dealing with spontaneous medical matters. Now, the program covers much less for them, as the bulk of their current experience falls into supporting patients to manage the pandemic. We’re also keeping our internship program smaller, as we don’t want to expose more students than we have to in this atmosphere. However, we hope they’ll use this time as a learning experience, so that they’re ready to respond to future crises.
What do the best interns at your workplace do to stand out?
During your internship, your talents and perseverance can get you noticed. The interns who do a little extra are the ones that get the spotlight.
- They leave the internship prepared to explain the specifics of their experience and ready to answer questions about patient care.
- They can analyze health information and data and work well with other employees in a fast-paced, high-pressure environment. Tasks like these are challenging, and engaging proactively shows a forward-thinking mindset. We find that admirable.