University of Toronto Magazine University of Toronto Magazine

Clinical Concerns

The faculties of medicine and nursing respond to SARS

When SARS struck Toronto last March, the students at U of T’s faculties of medicine and nursing faced a disruption in their training. But thanks to the adaptability of both faculties, SARS did not derail nursing or medical education.

During the first phase of SARS, clinical placements for undergraduate nursing students, who were deemed non-essential, were cancelled. “[They] were out of the hospitals for up to eight weeks and missed parts of their clinical placements, which are critical for gaining hands-on experience,” says Betty Burcher (BScN 1976, MSc 1992), a lecturer in U of T’s Faculty of Nursing. The students took part in simulated learning in the nursing lab to make up for the lack of placements, and Web-based courses helped prepare them for registered-nursing exams.

U of T cancelled classes for graduate nursing students on a week-by-week basis, because the hospitals needed nurses to work and did not want them congregating with nurses from other hospitals, says Burcher.

Medical students were also deemed non-essential and kept out of the hospitals. Those in third year missed one six-week rotation, which they had to make up at the beginning of fourth year. Those third-year students are expected to graduate on time, but “they will have to forgo one elective that would have ordinarily been used to seek additional experience,” says Dr. Rick Frecker (PhD 1973), associate dean, undergraduate medical education. The faculty of medicine provided third-year students with clinically oriented classroom work in the Medical Sciences Building.

Once the SARS scare receded, administrators lobbied to get nursing and medical students back into the hospitals. “We were worried that nursing students were going to lose the year,” says Burcher. They started returning to clinical sites, on a hospital-by-hospital basis, in early May.

Once students were back in the hospitals, the university continued to take preventive measures. “We did considerable liaison and communication with Toronto Public Health, the hospital placement co-ordinator and hospital infection control during the second SARS outbreak to ensure that students were safe and welcome on each particular unit,” says Burcher.

In addition to wearing protective goggles and masks at the hospitals, students and faculty members typically worked in just one health-care facility each to reduce the chance of transmitting SARS.

As well, when the second SARS outbreak occurred in late May, and 50 nursing students and faculty were quarantined, undergraduate nursing classes were cancelled for 10 days to prevent people from congregating in large groups on campus, which could have affected their placements.

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