Picture of Neel Mistry and Paul Rooprai

Neel Mistry and Paul Rooprai are second-year medical students at the University of Ottawa

The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated unprecedented change. From managing without quotidian restaurant visits to finding solace in virtual meetups, it has ushered in a ‘new normal’. Importantly, it has taught us to embrace situations over which we can exert minimal control. Our frontline workers have done a tremendous job braving the fight against this pandemic. Public health units have been working harder than ever to prevent transmission of the virus, but they were never designed to respond to the pandemic of the century.

William Osler Health System – a hospital network comprising Brampton Civic Hospital, Etobicoke General Hospital, and the Peel Memorial Centre for Integrated Health and Wellness – launched a contact tracing response in May in an effort to mitigate the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Since it began, Osler’s Rapid Results Notification Project has informed more than 1,000 patients about the results of their swab results and continues to do so. Medical and pharmacy students from the University of Toronto, University of Ottawa, and McMaster University are contributing to this project by offering support to patients with a confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection.

For medical students like ourselves, this project has instilled a sense of fulfillment, which is what motivated many of us to pursue medicine in the first place. It has bolstered our communication skills, teaching us to be more empathetic and how to build trust with patients using only our voices. These key skills will help us become better doctors.

The William Osler Health System’s Results Notification Project is an example of what effective communication and timely collaboration can achieve. Since its inception, student volunteers have devoted many hours to communicating test results and contact tracing. Before the involvement of student volunteers, communication of patients’ test results was often delayed by days due to administrative resource contraints. Health care happens through collaboration and teamwork, as healthcare workers unite to provide patients with the best care possible. 

In medical school we are taught to treat patients with care, dignity, and respect, because healthcare professionals often see patients on their worst days and in their most vulnerable states. While working on the Results Notification Project we encountered many people who were distressed by the pandemic. We’ve heard patients’ voices tremble with fear as they answer the phone, anticipating the worst. We’ve heard some people turn from apathetic to genial upon hearing “medical student” or “healthcare trainee.” A middle-aged woman we recently called was relieved to know that she had tested negative for COVID-19. She said that she had no symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 but the previous evening her heart had begun to pound thinking of what her result would be. Now she felt relieved. “Thanks for taking the time to call.” Knowing that our efforts are making a difference in people’s lives keeps us going and these moments serve as a reminder of why we sought to enter the medical profession to begin with.

In a recent encounter with someone who tested positive, we were baffled to hear that – despite their experiencing severe symptoms – a hospital staff member told them to “wait it out” before seeking further medical attention. That response could be attributed to concern about putting too much strain on healthcare resources. Following our conversation with this patient, we immediately documented the patient’s concerning symptoms in a secure online database and informed the resource coordinator to follow up. This patient was eventually admitted to the ICU and, after weeks of treatment, was discharged from hospital. We became part of the collaboration between healthcare workers and our communication led to the patient getting the care they needed.

Renowned cleric Charles Caleb Colton once said, “The true measure of your character is what you do when nobody’s watching.” Being part of this initiative has instilled purpose in our lives; and, whether or not anybody is watching, serving patients amid a global pandemic is beyond anything we could ask for.