Rethinking pandemic preparation and pivoting the Monash MD

Tess AitkenTess Aitken, a final year medical student, will be among the first cohort of students to graduate with a Monash MD this year.

One of three major changes in the transition from MBBS(Hons) to MD is the introduction of a Scholarly Intensive Placement (SIP) rotation in the final year of the degree. As COVID-19 struck Victoria many medical students were displaced from their clinical rotations and the medical school had to quickly pivot away from standard rotations into a more flexible model of delivery. Many students moved into their SIP early so they could use their time effectively while they were off clinical placements.

The SIPs offered by the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine (SPHPM) provide students with a chance to conduct or assist on a public health research project. As the SIP name suggests, the experience is intense, but students can achieve a surprising amount in the time.

Tess Aitken completed her SIP with Professor Danny Liew, Head of the SPHPM Centre of Cardiovascular Research and Education. Danny has a strong research interest in health economics and health planning, and involved Tess in a project devised as the COVID-19 pandemic erupted. She says,

“I was really disappointed when my clinical rotation evaporated in the face of the pandemic. I was placed in aged care, but due to the risks to elderly patients, all student [aged care] placements ended abruptly. I felt quite de-motivated and that there wasn’t anything productive I could do.”

But then she was placed into the SIP rotation, and applied for Danny’s project, which also involved two recent PhD graduates from SPHPM: Richard Ofori-Asenso (now at the University of Copenhagen) and Ken Chin (now at the University of Melbourne). Tess collected freely available data from Worldometer to evaluate the Global Health Security Index, an index created only last year that rates the pandemic preparedness of countries. She spent several days collating data that reflected the burden of COVID-19 in each of the countries, and compared these to the index. The analysis revealed something striking.

“We found that the index was almost the other way around! Countries that were predicted to handle a pandemic successfully were in fact experiencing a high burden of disease, while those expected to respond poorly were dealing with far less.

“It was an exciting result because it signposts the way to a vital area of research: pandemic preparedness. While there has been research on this previously, our results reveal how much remains to be done. It throws some of our previous assumptions around resources and health planning as markers of success out the window.”

Within four weeks of starting her placement, Tess’s study was published in the Journal of Infection. Tess was first author, and it’s her first publication. It’s an extraordinary achievement in the time-frame.

“It was a brilliant experience. Danny taught me how to write up a scientific article in the right style, which was something I’d never done before, and is quite a specific skill that will help me in future.”

Tess is nurturing her new-found passion for research by continuing to work with Danny and his team. She’s since worked with him on a second paper that is pending publication, and is currently working on a third.

The coordination of such rapid and fluid changes to the medical degree is testament to a huge effort by the central academic and administrative team in the School of Medicine, as well as a very large number of hard-working clinical, academic and administrative staff throughout the Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. The successful delivery of the SIP program in SPHPM is a testament to A/Prof Basia Diug, Prof Robin Bell, Bethany Howard and Natalie Rowell.

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