One-third of the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix Class of 2020 have been granted early graduation, and many will join Arizona health care professionals today (April 13) in answering questions from providers and the public about the novel coronavirus. 

Late last month the Phoenix medical school announced plans to graduate eligible students early and deploy them to areas where they are needed.

Ninety students were scheduled to earn their doctor of medicine degrees May 11 during commencement exercises, but the college allowed them to accelerate their graduation if they met certain requirements. Applications of 30 students were accepted last week and those students may begin working as newly-conferred MDs today. 

Since most of the hospitals where they will begin their residencies in the summer are busy treating Covid-19 patients, many of the young physicians are staying in Phoenix to help.

“Our students and college want to do everything we can to serve our community in this time of unprecedented need,” said Guy Reed, MD, MS, Dean of the College of Medicine – Phoenix. “We proceeded with early graduation to enable 30 qualified new physicians to join the battle for health against Covid-19. This required the hard work and dedication of our deans, faculty and staff.”

Although her residency at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix in orthopedic surgery does not begin until mid-June, Bridget Ralston will begin serving by answering hotline questions from the public and health care professionals about symptoms and procedures for dealing with Covid-19.

“There is a nationwide shortage of health care providers,” Ralston said. “This was true long before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Now, that shortage is even more keenly felt, as doctors are struggling to manage the addition of coronavirus patients into their already heavy workload. I applied to graduate early so that I can shoulder some of the responsibility.” 

Ralston said while she is not qualified to start taking shifts in an intensive care unit, she hopes to relieve some of the burden so physicians with more experience can focus on patients.

The Covid-19 hotline (1-844-542-8201) is a partnership between the Arizona Department of Health Services, Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the Banner Poison Control Center. The hotline receives more than 1,200 calls a day, and inquiries are expected to increase as the state’s coronavirus numbers are predicted to grow through late April. 

Dan Brooks, a clinical professor of internal medicine and emergency medicine and medical director of the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center, said assistance from the doctors-in-training has been invaluable. “They have already been extremely helpful and they have allowed us to manage the surge in Covid-19 questions,” he said.

Shanan Immel began answering calls from the hotline last week. “It is critical we use our time and knowledge to offset some of the burden on the health care system and get involved in fighting this pandemic,” he said. 

He will begin his internal medicine residency training in June at Tulane University in New Orleans.

Immel said he was called to join the front lines because “every person chipping in is what will eventually turn this pandemic around, as well as more people following public health guidance to stop transmission. I’m honored to graduate early and play some small part in all this, and I wish I could do more.”

He said the questions he has fielded so far were about symptoms, where people could go for testing, results follow-up and general questions about the virus.

Like many family members of medical students who chose to graduate early, Immel’s family supported his decision “as long as I could add something useful to the cause and stay safe,” he said.

Megan Kelly is anxious to continue her medical training in June with the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix Family Medicine program. But given the coronavirus pandemic, she applied for early graduation so she could help right away.

“Right now, our Arizona hospital systems have not stated that they need our immediate help, but as we have seen over the past few weeks, things are constantly evolving,” Kelly said. “In the meantime, I wanted to help with other initiatives in the community that don’t necessarily involve direct patient care, but are still efforts to help with the pandemic response.”

She, too, will be staffing the Covid-19 hotline.

Kelly credited the College of Medicine – Phoenix with recognizing some students’ requests to begin serving immediately.

“They listened to our needs and were instrumental in recognizing that our community may need additional members of the workforce in the coming weeks,” she said. 

Commencement for the Class of 2020 will be held virtually on May 11. Cara Christ, MD, MS, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, was scheduled to deliver the keynote address but, given the circumstances, has been asked to send a recorded message.

The University of Arizona College of Medicine – Tucson meets this week to determine which of their students qualify to graduate early.