What COVID-19 can Tell Us About Educating The Next
Generation of Health Science Professionals

February 14, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent changes in the public health space are revealing crucial areas where we have to re-examine the way we educate health-care providers and make available pathological research.

Advances in medical technology, reduced testing costs, and growing public awareness of health issues have all increased demand for medical services in both clinical and direct-to-customer spaces. American health organizations are also working hard to staff up in anticipation of ballooning COVID-19 cases, creating even higher demand for well-trained health care staff.

All of this means we need to be as effective and efficient as possible in educating the newest generation of healthcare workers preparing to join the front lines in the battle against serious health concerns such as the current global pandemic.

Across the world, education is changing. Almost one billion children are out of school due to closures. In response to the global pandemic, college students are taking their classes online, and millions are using the internet to work from their homes.

In the near future, we’ll see more education moving online, including education for crucial fields such as healthcare. However, COVID-19 also prompts important questions for healthcare education more broadly:

  • How will COVID-19 impact the future of health science education?
  • Does COVID-19 suggest we should focus more on epidemiology education?
  • Will we see more attention placed on public health education within healthcare?
  • How will COVID-19 affect colleges and universities?

Let’s begin with what the future of health science education will look like.

COVID-19 and Health Science Education: How Will the Coronavirus Impact the Future?

The discovery and spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has rapidly changed our world since January 2020. Entire countries have ground to a halt as people stay at home to prevent the spread of the virus. Entire industries, including education, have pivoted. As a result, the way we teach and learn has changed.

As more places adopt quarantine and self-isolation procedures, teachers and students are engaging with one another remotely. Instructors are having to learn how to teach and support their students using online platforms, which may not have been necessary before. Some universities dependent on international students to remain financially stable are struggling to survive the transition to online education.

Mat Frenz, VP of research and development at education consultancy company Entangled, said in an interview, “With help from state governments being unlikely at best, institutions will be forced to reconsider their business model and make very difficult decisions about who they are and what they do.”

As with learners in all other fields, health science students and educators will have to use online platforms in the immediate future to minimize physical contact with others, and the focus of curricula may change.

Although the health science curriculum will remain the same at its core, as the nation confronts a shortage of available healthcare providers and professionals, current health science students will likely find themselves learning about the novel virus in order to join the fray themselves. Some professionals even recommend reaching out directly to health care schools for additional healthcare support staff.

The shift to online platforms presents a unique challenge to health sciences education. Research and experiments are a crucial part of health science curricula, and lab classes, demonstrations, and procedures are tricky to move online.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Heather R. Taft writes that health sciences students may find themselves working with simulations instead of actual samples for some of their work. For example:

  • Anatomy courses may use digital 3D models as well as virtual dissections or surgical procedures.
  • Biology courses may conduct experiments using simulated samples of bacterium instead of real Petri dishes.

Taft explains how instructors might want to modify their lab courses, create new online lab platforms from scratch, and provide students with lab kids needed to continue learning from a distance.

On top of these short-term infrastructural changes to education, the COVID-19 pandemic will also cause a shift in topical emphasis in health science studies. The pandemic itself will become a valuable case study for the future, but we will also likely see more future health science professionals specializing in epidemiology.

Does COVID-19 Suggest We Should Focus More on Epidemiology Education?

Epidemiology is the branch of medicine that deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases and other factors relating to health. According to the CDC, “A primary goal of field epidemiology is to guide, as quickly as possible, the processes of selecting and implementing interventions to lessen or prevent illness or death when such problems arise.” The field is considered one of the foundational studies in medicine, and the COVID-19 pandemic has shed new light on just how vital it is that societies are prepared to respond to large-scale incidents of highly infectious diseases.

Epidemiological experts were the ones who warned that a pandemic was imminent and that we weren’t ready to respond with our current healthcare system. As far back as 2017, there have been calls to better utilize epidemiology to protect public health. COVID-19 was revealed to be a highly transmissible disease, one that spreads easily amongst people even before the onset of noticeable symptoms. As predicted, governments around the world were woefully unprepared for and slow to respond to the spread of the disease.

As a result of the global pandemic, more and more people are experiencing just how important epidemiology is for widespread awareness of and preparedness for disease outbreaks:

  • The plea to “flatten the curve” refers to the curve of an epidemiological model comparing the number of COVID-19 cases to the number of cases hospitals can manage.
  • Most governments rely on such epidemiological models to determine whether or not to close down cities—or even whole countries—to prevent the spread of a virus.

We will see a shift toward governments and educators alike placing a higher priority on epidemiology for large-scale public benefit:

  • The CDC website provides free training on basic epidemiological practice as well as guidelines for how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Epidemiologists are also helping to get the facts out about the coronavirus and advising people on what they can do to stay safe. For example, the public outreach group Dear Pandemic, run by a group of epidemiology professionals, dispenses information and resources related to COVID-19.

As a result, more people are becoming versed in epidemiological vocabulary like “social distancing” and modeling curves.

COVID-19 highlights how epidemiology has largely been a reactive field. Instead of focusing on preventative strategies, governments around the world were blindsided by the novel coronavirus and are scrambling to manage the situation. This wakeup call will shape epidemiology in the years to come.

Epidemiologists will continue to be necessary in a reactive capacity. When an unexpected outbreak occurs, they’re the professionals who figure out a plan to track the spread of disease, isolate it, and bring it under control to prevent as much death and infection as possible. They will be needed to act in conjunction with doctors, nurses, and other front-line medical personnel to protect public health.

However, as city, state, and federal governments realize the need for quicker responses to future epidemics or disease outbreaks, in the future, we will see epidemiology shift from a reactive field to a more proactive, preventative one.

Lastly, in a statement on the science of epidemiology, Charles Branas, Chair of Columbia University’s Department of Epidemiology, stated, “Epidemiology is, and should be seen as, a world-class science that impacts the lives of real people, in ways we can all appreciate.”Branas proceeds to explain that other scientists often see the field as “medium-soft,” somewhere between a “hard” science like chemistry and a “soft” science like psychology. In light of how useful epidemiology has been during the pandemic, this perception could shift.

Will We See More Attention Placed on Public Health Education Within Healthcare?

“Public health” isn’t just limited to epidemiology. Examples of public health education include:

  • Chronic disease awareness and prevention
  • Maternal and infant health
  • Tobacco use and substance abuse
  • Injury and violence prevention
  • Mental and behavioral health resources
  • Nutrition, exercise, and obesity prevention

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field of health education is expected to grow by 11% through 2028, much faster growth than average.

This could be due to our changing social and political climates. As a society, in response to coronavirus, we are slowly realizing that educating people on public health issues pays long-term dividends.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has long stated the importance of “health promotion (HP)” in public hospitals. Public institutions use HP to protect the health of entire populations, promote healthy lifestyles, discuss disease and injury prevention, and successfully respond to outbreaks. Successful HP means healthier people won’t need to lean on medical systems as heavily, which in turn means the healthcare system won’t get overtaxed and health costs will stay down.

As of 2019, HP remains a relatively new practice in countries like Iran, according to the previously linked study. That, combined with the projected growth of the public health education field in the US and the lack of public health knowledge highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, will mean greater emphasis on health science in education more broadly going forward.

How Will COVID-19 Affect Colleges and Universities?

The coronavirus has closed colleges and universities around the world, moving all courses online. Even in places that aren’t on total lockdown, schools have closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the students.

In the immediate future, faculty and staff will scramble to reorganize curriculums and class schedules. Students will have to adjust to distance learning.

However, school closures due to COVID-19 will have other, less visible effects:

  • Pandemic closures will affect enrollment in higher education for at least the next year. According to an article in EdSurge, current high school students won’t be able to take college entrance exams like the ACT and the SAT like normal. USC Rossier School of Education faculty member Doug Lynch notes that this “could impact next year’s enrollments in higher ed.”
  • College students currently training to be teachers won’t be able to fulfill their in-person practicum requirements for their degree, meaning there could be a shortage of K-12 teachers in schools next year.
  • The shift in the university model from campus to online platforms is exposing weaknesses in current funding models, according to EdSurge. To survive, some campuses are overly dependent on international student tuition, which is unattainable at the moment. Schools will need to make changes to stay afloat financially.
  • Some families will begin to question whether the “college experience” is worth the cost, as they continue to pay full tuition only for students to learn from their homes.
  • During this time of entirely online learning, people will discover or look to cheaper alternatives for knowledge and training. Recent years have seen a proliferation of online courses and boot camps that cost significantly less than university tuition—some are completely free. It’s plausible that more learners will rely on alternative online courses than traditional universities to learn the skills needed to improve their job prospects in the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Temporary government intervention, like the extension of the Pell Grant program, could help higher education weather the crisis.

The highly specialized nature of health sciences makes the field more resilient to changes. Most health science students will continue to stick with traditional university courses and curricula. However, it’s more important than ever that colleges and universities adapt, and that health sciences education moves more toward online learning to maximize accessibility, flexibility, and affordability.

With online learning, educators have a variety of tools and programs at their disposal to help students of every discipline, and it’s imperative that they use them now. Adjusting and making changes to preserve health science education will ensure that the health professionals entering the workforce today will receive the training they need before they enter the field and be better equipped to deal with this kind of disaster in the future.

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