Harvard Medical School uses telemedicine as a way forward

When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Harvard Medical School (HMS) to move learning online in March, faculty moved swiftly, developing new curriculum approaches, sometimes within hours, allowing educators to continue to teach classes and ensure that students are achieving learning objectives remotely.

But, among Harvard Schools, they had some unique challenges. Part of the process of teaching medical students how to fully assess their patients’ conditions requires human touch — and that can’t be done remotely.

“What is missing is the actual laying on of hands. We can use all of our other senses, but the ability to lay hands on and connect with a patient that way just can’t be replicated with virtual learning,” said John Dalrymple, associate dean for medical education quality improvement in the program in medical education.

“You can use your eyes and your ears a lot more, but just that physical connection … There’s no way to replicate that effectively,” he said.

It’s an obstacle, but not one that HMS faculty are letting hinder their teaching or the medical students’ education. In response, they have become more creative, and they’ve done it in record time.

Within weeks of moving classes online, for example, they converted objective structured clinical examination courses (OSCEs), into a virtual format. Ordinarily, students would perform OSCE’s with standardized patients — individuals trained to portray actual patients — in the School’s Clinical Skills Center, while faculty observe, coach and assess.

Now, faculty — led by OSCE Director Susan Farrell working with HMS IT teams — have developed a way to create televisits, where students can conduct standardized patient exams remotely, with faculty still able to watch and assess students’ skills.