This blog has been kindly contributed by Associate Professor Julie Attenborough from City, University of London. She is outgoing Chair of London Higher’s Healthcare Education Group (LHEG), which provides a forum for London’s higher education institutions that teach, train or conduct research in the healthcare professions. You can find Julie on Twitter at @CityJoolz.
At the beginning of 2020 no one could have foreseen the full impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and how it would change the world, our nation, and the communities that we serve. In Nursing, Midwifery and Allied Healthcare education in London, our response to the pandemic has involved radical changes to how we deliver our curricula, how we teach and undertake research and importantly how we work with National Health Service (NHS) trusts and other healthcare providers.
Ordinarily, the organisation of healthcare education in universities, including student placements, student numbers, and student schedules are all meticulously planned, working with healthcare providers across London. When Covid-19 hit last March, it quickly became clear that a different approach was needed. The NHS trusts and other placement areas were under immense pressure to respond to a novel virus, while our students, the future healthcare professionals, needed to progress to take their place in the workforce.
Through weekly calls with LHEG colleagues facilitated by London Higher, we quickly mobilised staff across the city to support the initial response to the emergency situation. Students could volunteer to be deployed into the workforce and we ensured all eligible students could undertake roles on the ‘front line’ that supported their education and were commensurate with their future aspirations. From the outset, LHEG facilitated close working with Health Education England and the health regulatory bodies, so that even at the most difficult times we were able to work as a coherent healthcare education system across London.
As described in a HEPI blog from May 2020, many students reported feeling fearful about starting work and uncertain about what the future would hold. This trepidation was clear in our report. Yet, our students stepped up to this challenge, despite their anxieties and the initial lack of information about the novel virus; in fact, finding students to volunteer to be deployed into the NHS workforce was not a problem. As our report, Evaluation of LHEG Universities Covid-19 Response in Allied Healthcare, highlights, this speaks volumes about the courage, attitude and determination of healthcare students across the UK. When asked why they volunteered, the students simply responded with ‘why not?’
The resilience, skill and selflessness that higher education students and colleagues demonstrated over the past year is commendable and should be acknowledged.
Even if the decision to contribute to the fight against Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic was relatively simple for most healthcare students, their reflections show there was a feeling of entering the unknown. Interviewees explained how starting their deployment at the beginning of the pandemic was quite unsettling – as it was an uncertain period when the virus was only beginning to be understood. As such, volunteers did not know what to expect, as the rules and guidance were constantly changing to keep up with the growing body of evidence.
It is because of the courage of these students that we have put together this report, detailing the challenges they overcame. Reflecting on this report, there are lessons the sector can take forward to improve the future educational experience for healthcare students. Covid-19 has presented, and continues to present, unparalleled challenges for us all. While the country continues to battle the effects of the pandemic and begin to focus attentions on the recovery effort, it is important to reflect on, and appreciate, the efforts that individuals and higher education institutions have made to get us to this point: reinforcing the NHS, expediting research, and ultimately saving lives.
Despite the immense challenges that have been faced over the course of the pandemic to date, it has been an immense privilege to serve as Chair of LHEG. The response from colleagues across London in responding to the pandemic, reacting at short notice to support the front line, reorganising training schedules, and always making time to contribute to frequent calls to share expertise, guidance and advice was outstanding. Across the board, the contribution of London healthcare colleagues, of London students and university communities has been truly impressive.
Of course, this is just the London story. However, LHEG are sure our students’ experiences were mirrored up and down the country. So, today’s report is our way of shining a light on the importance of healthcare students to the fight against Covid-19 across the nation. Above all, it is our way of saying ‘thank you’ to the unsung student heroes across universities and colleges everywhere.