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Medical students step up to fight COVID-19

Helena Kaschel
April 4, 2020

Thousands of medical students across Germany have volunteered their services to support the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Hospitals appreciate the extra helping hands.

A doctor and a medical student prepare to help patients in Tübingen
Image: Imago Images/ULMER Pressebildagentur

Charlotte Dubral, a 24-year-old medical student, was halfway through her Erasmus year abroad in Poland when the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Dubral returned to Germany in mid-March. Now, instead of attending lectures in Krakow, she is working for the Department of Preventive Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Cologne, where some 200 to 250 people are tested for COVID-19 every day.

Read more: Despite pandemic, foreign doctors struggle to get degrees recognized in Germany

Charlotte Dubral
Charlotte Dubral is helping out in a Cologne clinicImage: Privat

She volunteered to help out after friends told her about a special program for students. "I've made many friends from Spain and Italy during my year abroad, and they told me about their personal experiences," she told DW. "I thought to myself, 'I can't let that happen in Germany.' So I decided I would help out because I don't belong to a high-risk group."

After a crash course in hygiene procedures which taught her how to properly put on protective clothing and properly disinfect her hands, Dubral has been tasked with recording the symptoms of people being tested, as well as finding out about the people they have been in contact with. Later, she will help to collect samples from randomly selected patients at the university hospital.

'I was a bit nervous' 

Moritz Leweke, who is writing his PhD in experimental immunology at Bonn University, is now providing support to nurses at an intensive ward at Bonn's university clinic, where they've been treating a COVID-19 case in an isolated room.

Read more: Will Germans trade privacy for coronavirus protection?

"I was a bit uneasy at the start," said the 23-year-old by phone. "The first time I had to wear protective clothing, I wasn't sure if I had put everything on correctly. I was a bit nervous going through the barrier and making sure my mask was on right. I wouldn't say that it has become routine, but I do feel more confident."

Leweke is glad to be able to put his studies to good use, and said feedback has been positive. "We've been very well received and trained," he said.

He is also very aware of the fact that he could contract the virus himself, but this fact doesn't bother him. "When you choose to study medicine you know that this is one of the risks, and this is just one of the situations where you have to step up," he said, adding that it's important that students get a chance to work on wards where the situation isn't yet "chaotic."

'We will need every helping hand'

Leweke and Dubral are just two of the thousands of students who have volunteered to help out across Germany. It began with a Facebook group called Medis vs. COVID-19, which now has more than 20,000 members. It has since spawned its own website, where medical students can find out which hospitals and other medical establishments need support. A similar group in Austria has more than 5,000 members. Another project, Match4Healthcare, also puts medical students and other volunteers in contact with medical establishments.

Screenshot of Match4Healthcare showing a map of Germany
Match4Healthcare links up volunteers and hospitals in need of help

Bernd Metzinger from the German Hospital Federation (DKG) is not surprised by the outpouring of support. "I'm an veteran doctor, and I know my colleagues and the younger generation. They're all extremely committed, they want to help all patients, and this is something that is driving everyone to get involved. To be honest, I expected this," he said.

Though right now the situation in hospitals is still under control, and staff members have been able to run intensive care units without support, Metzinger said this was soon going to change. As of April 1, there were some 5,500 COVID-19 patients in German hospitals, with 1,500 in intensive care, according to DKG statistics.

Read more: German churches overcoming coronavirus isolation

"We are expecting the situation to get considerably worse in the next 14 days," he warned. "The number of patients, and thus the number who will need to be put on ventilators, will rise significantly.

"When this wave comes, we will need every helping hand, especially from people who have some prior training, such as medical students."

Disadvantage to medical students?

The outbreak might have a long-term impact on the careers of medical students who are almost at the end of their studies and awaiting their final exam before doing what is known as a practical year.

On April 1, the Health Ministry told federal states that they could decide whether to postpone the final exams by a year or to go ahead with them as planned in mid-April, "as long as the circumstances allow." If exams are postponed, students might be starting with their practical year earlier than expected.

Mattis Manke from the German Medical Students' Association is worried that such students might also be obliged to change their choice of specialization as the Health Ministry has explicitly stated that students can be transferred to "meet the demands of the current health care situation."

Read more: Spain: From tourism hotspot to contagion hotbed

Though he understood that medical establishments needed the support, Manke said this pressure could have an adverse effect on the students' future. "The choice of specialization is extremely relevant for a student's later career," he pointed out.

Moritz Leweke wearing a face mask
Leweke knows the risks, but is glad for the experienceImage: Privat

He also said there was a danger that students might learn less than usual during their practical year, because qualified doctors would have less time to devote to teaching as a result of the outbreak.

The Health Ministry has said it is aware that those students are facing "particular challenges," and that it was "conceivable that they might be deployed differently in this crisis situation than otherwise." It, therefore, also recommended that hospitals remunerate those students for their services, which they are not legally required to do.

None of this applies to Moritz Leweke, who has a contract for three months and will simply do fewer shifts on the intensive ward if the summer term begins as expected, or Charlotte Dubral, who currently plans to work in Cologne at least until the end of April.

"I can see there is demand," she said. "I'm flexible and I want to help."

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