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Rolling With the Punches

Optometry school professor had to scramble to serve students in COVID-19 changes

Christine Pham, OD, FAAO, an assistant professor at Western University College of Optometry, was thrown a curveball when COVID-19 struck. Her previous teaching methods for leading clinicals were no longer viable options, and she and her colleagues were tasked with navigating the challenges of the pandemic for their students and patients.

Western University is home to nine total health science colleges; from the College of Veterinary Medicine to the College of Dental Medicine, the university covers it all. As it would happen, Dr. Pham and her colleagues in the College of Optometry ended up leading the way for the entire university when it came to COVID preparedness. “The first thing the college did was create a COVID task force,” she says. “We drafted procedures and policies focused on keeping the faculty, students, and patients safe, even as we kept teaching.” The way that manifested was by eliminating clinical gatherings and limiting the number of patients entering the building to allow everyone to easily maintain six feet of physical distance. This shift presented the faculty with an issue, however, they were able to quickly pivot teaching styles and catch third-year clinical students up to speed. [“We needed] to maximize patient encounters,” she says, “and teach students about clinical efficiency.”

Now that all the students have returned to campus, Dr. Pham and her colleagues have found a way for all of the third-year students to see patients—with a little help from technology.

“We can have one student providing direct patient care in the exam room, and another student participate virtually from an exam room next door,” she says. “They’re still able to conduct a patient case history and document findings in the electronic medical records; there is just one student in the exam room facilitating the hands-on skills and another is remote.” It doesn’t just stop there, though. “As far as viewing pathology, all of our slit lamps are equipped with an internal camera,” says Dr. Pham. “When the doctor or student examines the patient, we have the ability to share the screen with virtual students. Virtual students are able to see slit lamp and dilated fundus biomicroscope examinations as if they are performing the skills themselves. ”

She says, “We made the best of it… we embraced the technology we already had. The students think of it in a positive way and view it as another resource for visual and verbal feedback.” The wrench that the pandemic threw into everything has not affected the timeline of the students’ graduations, and the current third-year students will move into their fourth year where they will learn at other facilities.

SOFT SKILLS AND SILVER LININGS

This somewhat forceembrac time of reflection has also given Dr. Pham and her fellow faculty members time to address less-tangible skills. “We are trying to incorporate the professional aspects of personal accountability, eliminating disparities in medicine,” she says, to name a few.

Another silver lining to come out of the darkness has been a more intimate glimpse into the exam room by faculty members. Patients, who all consent to be on camera, and their student doctors can now be viewed by faculty. “We can hear the dialogue students have with our patients,” she says. “We’re able to give effective feedback in a more timely manner, identify any areas for improvement, and address them with the student.”

Dr. Pham sees more than one of these modifications sticking around in post-pandemic days. “Telemedicine is a great resource to consult with our patients,” she says. She has found that her colleagues who practice vision therapy have seen more success with patients who were able to stay in the comfort of their own homes for their appointments. “The vision therapy team sees significant improvement because of environment,” says Dr. Pham.

“It’s hard to be optimistic, but once we created a plan, we realized, ‘Oh, the sky’s the limit.’ I think that part is exciting.”

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