No classes, no problem. Medical students join NHS to fight COVID-19 outbreak

medical students
Meet the medical students who are making a real-world difference. Source: Study International

With medical schools across the UK suspending clinical placements, postponing exams and shifting classes online due to COVID-19, many medical students have a lot of time to spare.

For those from abroad, time is ticking even slower due to flight cancellations and travel restrictions leaving them stuck in the UK.

But for Birmingham-based medical students Jessica Bowie, Alice Kennedy, Lydia Wilson and Emma Rogers, this time is just what they need to step up and serve the beleaguered National Health Service (NHS) at an hour of crisis.

“We realised GP surgeries and hospitals in Birmingham were really struggling with lack of staff and needed our help,” the medical students told Study International.

“So we set up the Helping Hands Birmingham group to connect the West Midlands NHS staff to DBS-checked medical students and it’s now part of a national initiative called ‘National Health Supporters’ which has over 40 groups across the UK.” (DBS refers to Disclosure and Barring Service, a public body under the Home Office which checks whether medical school applicants have criminal records)

medical students

Many medical students in the UK are stepping up to help NHS workers during the COVID outbreak. Source: Tolga Akmen/AFP

Immediate, international response

Through the group, healthcare students will act as a volunteer force to help with NHS workers with non-clinical tasks and providing a network of support in place that is ”ready to go”.

Since the students set it up, the response has been incredible:

“In less than 48 hours we amassed 850 members, which has now risen to over 1,200,” they said.

“We’ve even had international and local medical students from other universities join, who are living at home in Birmingham, as well as other healthcare students such as nurses and physios asking if there’s anything they can do to help too.” 

The group has even been contacted by international medical students who travelled back to their home country before the COVID-lockdown and want to help NHS workers remotely.

“Although the majority of our voluntary work has been based in the West Midlands, some jobs, like helping the hospital admin staff type letters, have been completed remotely!” they explain.

“It is so lovely that people are trying to help no matter their location.”

There are more than 65,000 people now testing positive for COVID-19 across the UK, with a total of 7,978 people confirmed to have had the virus have died at the time of writing. The country is projected to become the worst-hit country by the pandemic in Europe, according to a study by The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle.

With a “continuous tsunami” of coronavirus patients arriving, stretching critical care and other hospital units in the treasured health service to their limits, the NHS is needing any extra help it can get.

That’s why from the moment Helping Hands Birmingham launched, the team of volunteers has seen help requests of all kinds pour in.

For instance, helping doctors with their grocery shopping while they’re on back-to-back shifts and picking up bed frames so that children could be discharged from the children’s hospital.

“It’s been really inspiring to see how all areas of the healthcare sector are pulling together to help each other and also the amount of support from the general public,” Emma said.

“It’s really brought out the best in people.”

medical students

Pedestrians pass the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham after the British government ordered a lockdown to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Source: Paul Ellis/AFP

A learning curve for all

If some thought this pandemic would make these medical students reassess their career paths, they’re wrong. 

Of course there is fear among the doctors-to-be. Third-year medical student Jessica said her involvement in the Helping Hands group made her realise just how destructive the virus can be.

“I think at first, like many, I was quite daunted at the fact that if this had happened a few years later I would be one of the people on the front line in hospitals,” she said.

Nonetheless, they are signing up to serve now and in the future.

Fourth-year medical student Alice said setting up the Helping Hands Birmingham group has proved to be soul-stirring, strengthening her resolve to join the noble profession once she graduates.

“It has highlighted how hard the NHS staff work, how much they are appreciated and just how important their role is — I’m excited to be a part of that in a few years!”

Lest we forget, it was just less than eight decades ago when medical students as young as 21 jumped at the chance to serve patients, doctors and nurses in World War 2.

Alice, Jessica, Lydia and Emma — They echo the spirits of their predecessors who volunteered to go to the dangerous frontlines of previous wars and countless others in the essential services fighting today’s invisible, but just as deadly, enemy.

“I think nowadays a lot of people live in situations where they don’t know or [don’t] chat to their neighbours, or they’re not sure who they could go to in their local community if they needed help, she says.

“Helping Hands made me realise there are so many people out there who are more than willing to help (with almost anything!), you just need to ask.”

So if you’re one of those people who want to give a helping hand to local communities during this crisis, search for a nearby Helping Hands group and see what NHS workers and GPs need. 

Or if you’re stationed in the West Midlands area, hop on over to this Facebook page to see how you can assist.  


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