Medical Students face new barriers

Dain Shirmer poses on the Juniata College campus Feb. 17. Shirmer is one of many medical students whose career path has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has shined a spotlight on healthcare workers. For those entering the medical field, the pandemic has brought with it new barriers, doubts and affirmations.

The greatest barrier to prospective medical students as a result of the pandemic is an inability to complete shadowing hours. Pre-meds are expected to earn shadowing hours where they follow doctors during their shift to obtain real life experience before applying to medical schools.

Juniata College pre-med student Dain Shirmer says that he plans to graduate in May, but will take a gap year before applying to medical schools. One reason why is that he’s had a hard time earning shadowing hours. During the pandemic many healthcare systems are not allowing any outside personnel to spend time in their hospitals — even for educational purposes.

“One of the large challenges that COVID has given us is finding time to shadow and get clinical hours. That’s a large part of the application and with all of the restrictions we can’t really get into hospitals to do that,” said Shirmer, “It’s just another barrier that I think may deter people from entering the field.”

According to Shirmer, some medical schools expect applicants to have up to 120 hours of shadowing, but on average most students apply with about 50. Juniata College offers a two-part course that allows students to obtain some shadowing hours, but students are responsible for accumulating most of these hours on their own.

Many medical schools also expect a letter of recommendation from a doctor, and these typically result from relationships built during shadowing hours.

Some medical schools have changed their requirements to apply due to the pandemic. One of the most disrupted aspects was the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). The exam is typically one of the most important requirements, and normally takes place in the spring. Last year’s exams became highly disrupted because of COVID-19 related restrictions in the U.S. Many students reported multiple canceled exam appointments and constant rescheduling. The disruptions were severe enough that it prompted the Students for Ethical Admissions to draft a 27-page letter detailing the many obstacles, and request that the MCAT be waived as a requirement. According to MedPage Today, some schools decided independently to waive or minimize the importance of the MCAT when considering applications.

Juniata College pre-med senior Jake Niebler says he was surprised how few of his classmates decided to apply for medical schools in the fall. He says it has to do with the lack of shadowing options.

“I was fortunate in that I really got a lot of my shadowing done early, but I do know a ton of people who have had a lot of trouble getting opportunities. Med schools say they’re understanding that it’s hard to get those opportunities and get into those hospitals, but when you’re going up against other people who have been able to do that it definitely hurts your chances,” said Niebler.

Applications to medical schools actually went up during last year’s pandemic by 18% according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. Some sources have speculated the loosened requirements may have contributed to the rise in applications, as well as more free time for prospective students to complete applications to more schools. It’s unclear if there was also an increase in the number of students applying or simply a rise in applications.

Niebler says that the shadowing process is also beneficial for weeding out students who may not be cut out for a medical career.

“It’s time consuming, you really learn the amount of time that it takes and it’s stressful both emotionally and physically, and if you’re not really committed to medicine and that being what you want to do with your career, that can turn a lot of people off,” said Niebler.

Shirmer says that he’s felt his own doubts during his academic career. He says they stem from growing up in Perry County, in an area “that makes Huntingdon look like a bustling metropolis,” but the pandemic has contributed as well.

“I think coming from a small town in central Pennsylvania, it is sometimes difficult to escape that, ‘you’re not good enough mentally,’ that kind of impostor’s syndrome. Overcoming that doubt that, ‘am I really good enough to get into these medical schools?’ is something that I’ve been overcoming and a lot of other pre-meds who I’ve talked to,” said Shirmer.

Shirmer says despite these doubts, he remains committed to his goal. He’s spent much of the last year working with AmeriCorps Vistas in the area to address the lack of medical resources in rural areas. This experience also showed him the impact of COVID-19 in small towns first hand.

“It’s hit underprivileged communities the hardest, and I think that should be where we’re allocating resources in the future,” he said.

The American Association of Medical Colleges released a study last June projecting that the United States may face a shortage of 54,100 to 139,000 physicians by 2033. There are already fewer medical specialists in rural areas, and with a lack of physicians entering the field, that disparity could continue to grow.

Another student concerned with this disparity is Brooke Emge, a biology and pre-med major at Juniata College. She’s a junior this year, and making plans to graduate in December before attending medical school in fall 2022. After medical school, she hopes to become a dermatologist or primary care physician, and specialize in rural community health and engagement.

“I think that just spouts from growing up in a rural area and knowing that there’s a lack of resources compared to urban areas,” said Emge.

Emge says that she witnessed the support for healthcare workers in her hometown, and was glad to see all their hard work being appreciated. She says that despite the challenges of the pandemic, she remains determined to become a doctor who cares deeply for her patients.

“I would say that my decision is more affirmed by everything that has gone on because I really do want to help people and make sure that I’m a positive role model for people and get them where they need to be in terms of their health,” said Emge.

Haldan can be reached at


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