Jad Abi-Rafeh and Dr. Tyler Safran

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic greatly altered normalcy with respect to daily life across the globe, and medical education was not spared, though the leadership and dedicated teachers across the School of Medicine at McGill moved swiftly to find alternative means of providing valuable learning opportunities for students.

McGill medical student Jad Abi-Rafeh and McGill resident Dr. Tyler Safran, decided to, first, look at the impact on medical education from the student’s perspective, publishing a commentary on the topic in CMEJ, and subsequently collaborate on to develop a series of virtual lectures intended for students.

The two recently took some time to speak with us and answer some questions about the various initiatives they have been leading over the past months, and the impact these have had.

Back in May, you published a piece looking at medical education during the pandemic from a medical student’s perspective. What prompted you to share this perspective? From your point of view, what were the most important takeaways you put forth in the publication?
Jad Abi-Rafeh: The COVID-19 pandemic is a very unique experience to live through as a medical trainee. In March 2020, my colleagues and I received a communication stating that all medical students are to be withdrawn from clinical rotations. Although disappointing at first, this was rather understandable, given that clinical learning opportunities were growing limited, and the shift in focus of vital hospital resources towards the care of our sick and vulnerable. The added risk of viral dissemination into our communities, from our presence in hospitals as learners, was also not one to ignore. My colleagues and I were thus faced with the chilling reality that no matter our motivation and desire to help, our biggest contribution to society was by keeping away from the hospital. This was a difficult pill for many of us to swallow, given that our choice of career is driven by our desire to be at the service of others. In accepting these difficult circumstances, we realized that we must take this as an opportunity to reflect upon this unique, unfortunate situation, and identify learning points that we may carry forth with us into our careers ahead. We decided to consolidate these thoughts into a commentary we were fortunate to publish in the Canadian Journal of Medical Education (CMEJ); in it, we elaborate on how this pandemic serves as a stark reminder of the fundamental role of every physician, which transcends subspecialty: to heal and serve those most vulnerable. We reflect upon the sacrifices physicians continue to make daily, and how in witnessing the impact of the virtuous work of our mentors during these difficult times, we can come to appreciate the true meaning of medical practice. We explore the impact this pandemic has had on medical education, and in doing so, identify specific challenges and future directions for medical students and educators. These latter points prompted us to put forth a follow-up piece, in which we report on the growing role of online and virtual teaching resources in addressing evolving educational challenges, specifically for medical students interested in plastic surgery.  In keeping with these findings, I was very fortunate to be able to help Dr. Tyler Safran develop an online virtual teaching platform designed to help promote the continuity of medical education in surgical anatomy.
Dr. Tyler Safran: Our newest publication describes this virtual lecture initiative, which has amassed interest from 227 medical students. Designed to help keep medical students up to date, prepared and on-track for surgical rotations ahead, these sessions are not meant to replace core anatomy teaching, but rather, to help reinforce essential concepts, discuss different surgical techniques, medical pathologies, and clinically relevant variations. Most recently, 68% of participants attended from our local institution, with international medical trainees joining from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Columbia, and the Netherlands!
Do you find there is a significant difference in terms of the impact on students (from their perspective) depending on where they are in the trajectory of their medical education?
Dr. Safran: Yes, very much so. Students in their junior years (Med-1,2) have classes and small groups that can easily be transitioned online. However, there is no substitute for donor bodies, which is one of the strengths of the McGill medical school program. More senior students integrated into hospitals face different challenges given the lack of away rotations and shortened blocks to help accommodate students. There will need to be more directed efforts to increase productivity and independent study for this cohort. There is a huge push for online medical student internships, program visits, and webinars in this context. I recommend that today’s medical student takes full advantage of these opportunities.
In an effort to help fill in some gaps, you ended up developing weekly virtual sessions on clinically relevant anatomy. When did those begin? Who was leading the sessions? Are these sessions continuing or have they stopped?
Dr. Safran: It was a collaborative effort on behalf of myself and Jad Abi-Rafeh. The Plastic Surgery program, under the guidance of our chief Dr. Mirko Gilardino and program director Dr. Stephanie Thibaudeau, has placed a huge effort on education and medical student teaching. We have, as a division, created a series of PowerPoint presentations to help guide medical students through the plastic surgery service covering a wide range of relevant topics. To build on these great initiatives, we thought it would be very well received to put out these anatomy presentations. They are still ongoing; previous sessions can be accessed here.
As a resident in surgery, I understand you received the Ross Adair resident teaching award from the Department of Surgery as a result of these sessions. What does that recognition mean to you?
Dr.  Safran: Receiving the Ross Adair Resident Teaching Award was such an honour, to have received such a prestigious award. To have been recognized for my efforts on teaching pushes me to strive for more. Physician teachers need to continue to be recognized for their commitment to not only their practice and learning but to improving the knowledge of their peers.
Do you have any plans to expand to different topics?
Dr. Safran: For now, our goal is to make the anatomy sessions accessible for all interested, and in the future, we will keep our eyes open for more avenues to help fill voids in medical/ plastic surgery education. Globally, evidence has shown us that plastic surgery teaching is lacking in undergraduate medical education. We will try to see where online sessions will fit into this goal.

It is important for the McGill community as a whole to realize the excellent teaching opportunities available for students. As one of my mentors told me: “Physicians have two jobs: 1) to be the best we can be for our patients 2) to teach the next generation to be better than us.” I think that these sessions really embody this philosophy and help the next generation of doctors strive to become better physicians.

If anyone is interested in either participating in the sessions as a student or leading sessions (if applicable), how can they get involved?
Dr. Safran: All interested parties can contact me directly (Tyler.safran@mail.mcgill.ca); we are open to any new ideas.