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College of Medicine Orientation Week moves into the virtual world

First-year medical students arrive on campus Aug. 3

Orientation Week will be very different this year due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Instead of the usual mass of first-year medical students scurrying around College of Medicine buildings, attending presentations, luncheons, dinners and social gatherings during the first week of August, the 180 first-year students will be broken into small groups of nine with a Student Orientation Leader (SOL) to guide them. Each day, two small groups will be on campus in the mornings and afternoons from Aug. 3 through Aug. 7 to maintain the 10-person gathering limit while still allowing time together to get acquainted with fellow students and learn the medical campus. Otherwise, much of the rest of their week will be spent online with live and recorded sessions.

Planning for Orientation Week began in February, but by late May it became clear that the pandemic was probably going to constrain mass gatherings in August forcing the week’s events into a virtual world. Even with a virtual orientation, Abbey Tissot, PhD, assistant dean for admissions and special programs, says “the students hopefully are going to find that they'll receive more time and attention than in a standard orientation program because of how much attention has been paid to making sure they feel cared about and are given absolutely everything they need.”

Each in-person session will include a tour of college buildings, pick-up of the student’s white coat, official portrait, personal protective equipment (PPE) instruction and a presentation on “Your First Patient” by Bruce Giffin, PhD, professor in the Department of Medical Education and associate dean for medical education, and other members of the medical education faculty.

Each student also will be personally “coated” with their new white coat by Philip Diller, MD, PhD, senior associate dean for educational affairs.

Abbey Tissot, PhD

Abbey Tissot, PhD

“That will be one of the most charming elements of this orientation week,” Tissot says. “Dr. Diller has blocked the entire week in his schedule so he can personally put a white coat on each student so that they don't miss that experience of being welcomed to the medical profession. That's something that shows extra thoughtfulness and reiterates our commitment to making sure their White Coat experience is special.”

The personal coating this year replaces the traditional White Coat Ceremony typically held at the conclusion of Orientation Week at Cincinnati’s Music Hall or Aronoff Center. A virtual ceremony will be held in September and a traditional White Coat Ceremony for the Class of 2024 is being planned for the students’ transition to their third year so family can be in attendance, Bennet says.

While all of the informational sessions that are traditionally held in person during Orientation Week will be shifted to live virtual events or online recordings, students will still see members of the Student Affairs Office during their half-day sessions on campus, says Aurora Bennett, MD, associate dean of student affairs. “We will have at least one to two folks present when they come by Student Affairs so that there are people there when they come by and that they know they can pop in anytime for help.”

Tissot credits the hard work of the College of Medicine faculty, administrators and staff for transforming the orientation activities to a virtual environment and congratulates all the presenters for their flexibility in recording presentations or being prepared to present their important information via WebEx sessions. “The adaptability that we have seen from all our stakeholders has been incredible,” she says. “It's truly Cincinnati, the way that people are so generous of spirit and helpful and willing to do whatever they can to make things better for others. It's very easy to see that that's our style.”

“I think the most challenging part has been getting these recordings and making them brief because we know watching a video is different than being present for a lecture. All of our presenters have had to consolidate their information to make their presentations briefer and we've added open house-type sessions where people can ask their questions and get more information.”

Throughout the week, the Class of 2024 will have a number of mandatory and optional videos to watch, all aimed to provide students with the critical information needed to prepare them for the start of their medical educations. Mandatory videos of between 15 and 30 minutes include:

  • A welcome from Andrew Filak Jr., MD, senior vice president for health affairs and Christian R. Holmes Professor and Dean;
  • “Heal the Sick,” an inspirational call to action by Christopher Lewis, MD, UC vice provost for academic programs;
  • An introduction to the Office of Medical Education by Pamela Baker, PhD, associate dean for medical education and vice chair of the Educational Policy Committee (EPC);
  • An introduction of the Class of 2024 to one another by Tissot;
  • An introduction to the Office of Student Affairs by Bennett;
  • An overview of the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion by Mia Mallory, MD, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion;
  • A talk about career development by Laura Malosh, PhD, assistant dean for student affairs, and Alice Mills, MD, career development director;
  • “An Overview of Professionalism” by Robert Neel, MD, associate professor of neurology;
  • A presentation on campus safety by UC Police;
  • Diller will offer a discussion on learning in the context of COVID-19; and
  • Laura Wexler, MD, professor of internal medicine and one of the 2020 Daniel Drake medalists, will discuss being a lifelong learner.

Optional video sessions will review academic resources and support, time management, financial aid and budgeting, service opportunities, research, healthy eating and student clinic opportunities. Students will have the option of participating in daily 15-minute morning wellness sessions by Sian Cotton, PhD, Turner Farm Foundation Endowed Chair for the Director of the UC Center for Integrative Health and Wellness, and other members of the center. Lunchtime programming throughout the week will include a fashion show where Keith Stringer, MD, assistant professor of pathology, Filak and other faculty demonstrate the do’s and don’ts of medical student dress. Other noontime sessions cover the college’s Student Handbook, student health insurance and University Health Services, financial aid and implicit bias with guest speaker Tommie Lewis.

Going to a mostly virtual orientation week has allowed planners to add some new presentations to the program. In addition to the morning wellness sessions, Baker and Steve Baxter, MD, associate professor of emergency medicine and chair of the EPC, will provide a thorough overview of the first-year curriculum during a recorded online session. There also will be a current student online panel July 15 where a half dozen students from years 2-4 will share helpful tips with the incoming students.

There will be numerous opportunities for students to gather in person in small groups to get to know one another and have a little fun, including evening meetups and small group scavenger hunts on Saturday, Aug. 8 throughout Cincinnati.

Orientation week will not be the first time the incoming students will be focusing on the start of their medical education. The 10 SOLs, who are all beginning their second year, have been meeting online with students since June.

“This class has been talking with current medical students closely and routinely since June, which is two months earlier than this would happen in any other year,” Tissot says. “These current students wanted to make sure that the new students feel as supported as they had felt when they were coming in. It's just this generosity that’s passed from every generation of our Cincinnati family. They just want to help one another feel as loved and supported as they were when they came.”

portrait of Aurora Bennett, MD

Aurora Bennett, MD

"We don’t usually communicate with the students so early and closely before they arrive, but we felt like it was important to go ahead and do an outreach, see faces and try to let them know that we are very warmly anticipating their arrival,” added Bennett. “We certainly have a sense that this is a very different start to medical school and all the more reason that we want them to feel we are available to them.”

The incoming class also has been busy this summer working on a list of some 70 items to prepare for the start of the year. The list includes things like supplying their final college transcripts, providing a creative expression of what they imagine it will be like meeting their first cadaver, information on required immunizations and the completion of a partner survey to help match them with a community preceptor.

While Tissot believes strongly that this year’s orientation will offer new students plenty of information, her preference is to return next year to the in-person format of the past.

“Because Orientation Week has such an important communal and social engagement component, I think in the future we would always opt for in-person because it’s the first time all of these young people are meeting one another. The early involvement of the student orientation leaders with the class is something we’re definitely going to think about keeping. It was necessitated by having to see the incoming students feel like a part of the community so much earlier.”

Despite the obstacles of planning a virtual orientation week, Tissot, in her usual effervescent self, is excited about the Class of 2024.

“I think they’re going to go down in history as our most flexible class because for many of them the conclusion of their spring semester, plus their graduation, were completely modified. The way that they will enter and then be taught in their first year of medical school is totally modified. So, I think this is going to be a class for whom we just have to celebrate their willingness to go with the flow, to be flexible and adaptive and really that’s where resilience is going to define this group,” Tissot says. “We choose for those things when our admissions committee is making selections. I'm so grateful we do because we couldn't have known when we completed our selection in the first week of February that we were selecting people who are going to have to navigate all of this. Thank goodness looking at resilience is part of our system.”

“And now they're going to truly understand adversity in a way that's just so deep,” Tissot continued. “They were already capable of that, but our hats should be tipped to all of them knowing that they were already really special in that way and that this is making those skills even stronger.”

Featured image of medical students during 2019 Orientation Week by Colleen Kelley//UC Creative + Brand.