Third-year students at the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM) were concerned when they could no longer continue their planned clinical rotations due to the global pandemic caused by COVID-19. However, with the addition of a new curriculum, these students will now have the ability to participate with patients through telemedicine.

Dr. John Sealey, D.O., associate dean of Clinical Medicine at ARCOM explained, “Telemedicine allows patients and healthcare providers to communicate via video or phone for medical care. Technology plays a huge role in effective telemedicine and fortunately ARCOM’s state-of-the-art infrastructure was already in place.

“We simply added the Webex application for faculty and student use. Now, our medical students are able to log on with a resident and a physician to meet with a patient on a network that ensures patient confidentiality.”

This integration of telemedicine into the medical curriculum is a program Sealey started at his previous institution in Detroit. Dr. Ernie Yoder took Sealey’s place when Sealey relocated to Fort Smith in October of 2019. Yoder is the practicing internal medicine physician that will serve as the preceptor for ARCOM students during the telemedicine experience.

To begin the telemedicine process, ARCOM students will participate in a three-week training program. Sealey explained, “The first week, students will observe the preceptor and resident meeting with their patient. Following the appointment, the preceptor will discuss the patient’s condition and treatment plan with the students. As they progress through the training, the students will have the opportunity to take a patient history and ask questions.”

Was telemedicine in the plan to train ARCOM students? According, to Dr. Rance McClain, D.O., dean of ARCOM, “Yes, it is our duty to monitor not only where the progression of medicine is currently, but also where it is likely to go and to prepare our students accordingly. We have known for several years that telemedicine would grow but were unsure how quickly this would take place or what events would spur its growth.”

“Though we were already looking at ways to incorporate telemedicine into our curriculum, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed us and other medical schools to stay in front of the changes needed to ensure a well-rounded education for our students. Faculty is key for all medical education, and ARCOM had the faculty in place to begin the new curriculum; however, it has been an opportunity for new collaborations. McClain stated, “We have been able to work with some organizations and physicians that were previously not associated with ARCOM and we are excited to build these new partnerships.”

As with anything new, there are always pros and cons. Sealey expanded on both the advantages and disadvantages of telemedicine.

“Telemedicine increases access to medical care, which is a huge benefit to rural areas. There is no travel required, so the patient is more likely to visit with their doctor virtually. It can also increase the quality of care provided in certain medical and mental health conditions. This means fewer hospital visits, fewer readmissions to the hospital, easier follow-up care, and an overall decrease in medical expenses. Telemedicine can also enhance the face-to-face interaction between patient and physician by allowing patients to be interviewed prior to their in-office visit. During this pandemic, it has allowed patients to be interviewed without putting healthcare providers at additional risk. As for disadvantages, you are more dependent on technology, and it is more difficult to get a good picture of the mood or attitude of the patient.”

Student response to this new program has been very positive. According to McClain, “It was hard on the students to be taken off of their clinical learning experiences into a different type of education process in March when the COVID-19 pandemic evolved enough to necessitate the move, which was a result of hospitals throughout the country not having adequate protection for both the physician and the students. The students missed the patient interaction. When we began incorporating telemedicine, the students were so happy to be able to participate in real patient care again. It was a true light at the end of the tunnel to let them know we would be back to education as it was before, but with some new, interesting additions such as telemedicine.”

ARCOM third-year medical student, Kali Blanc, was relieved when she heard that telemedicine would be added to her curriculum. “I think telemedicine could change medicine for the rest of my career and not just during COVID-19. People that live hundreds of miles from a physician or patients that don’t have access to a car will have the opportunity to see a physicin.”

While ARCOM faculty agree that nothing will ever replace the face-to-face interaction between patient and physician, telemedicine offers an alternative during unprecedented times like the current COVID-19 situation. McClain summarized, “We want our students to be prepared to handle any situation, including a pandemic. Now they are armed with one more tool in their medical bag – telemedicine.”