Late last year, Jessica Randall, Pia Zaldua and Hannah Mudd were the winners of the annual student professionalism competition run by the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Medical Schools Council (MSC). Their entry was an e-learning module on communicating with patients and those close to them, inspired by their personal experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here, the winners tell us what inspired their entry, how they put it together and how they hope it will be useful for future medical students and doctors.

We were among the first cohort to experience medical education during COVID-19, and in the unique position of being able to recognise the effect the pandemic was having on doctor-patient relationships in terms of communication.
Plus, we were also able to see the gaps in the current undergraduate medical curriculum in terms of the impact of telecommunications and e-consultations, the challenges of using Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and adapting to meet new needs of patients, who were now unable to see their families and loved ones in hospital.

Communication is a key aspect of professionalism. It helps to foster trusting doctor-patient relationships and ensures high quality patient care. It is much more than an exchange of words; it also encompasses non-verbal communication such as body language, posture, gestures and eye contact.

By all accounts, the ability to do this well has been challenged during the COVID-19 pandemic. While we were on placements, for example, we witnessed many occasions where masks, an essential piece of PPE, were a major barrier in the communication process. Patients struggled to understand what healthcare professionals were saying or to identify the emotions clinicians were expressing. This was even more evident in patients with poor health literacy or those where English was not their first language.

Alarmed by the impact poor communication was having on patients, we felt an obligation to encourage medical students to recognise potential communication barriers and explore strategies for how to overcome them.
We wanted to introduce these concepts to medical students in an engaging, interactive, and visually appealing way. Seeking out reputable sources to form the basis of the content, the GMC’s Achieving good medical practice guidance provided a framework for the fundamental principles of good communication. So, the student professionalism competition felt like a natural fit, particularly as it was an opportunity to disseminate our learning tool to medical students across the UK.

As medical education had adapted to the pandemic by putting more emphasis on virtual and remote learning, we had to consider alternative ways to present information that would normally be done face-to-face. We utilised our combined skills from creating previous e-learning resources, and our knowledge of medical education principles, to design our e-learning module.

To ensure an effective, considered design, we implemented tools from the literature on e-learning development such as storyboarding, as well as key medical education theories. We considered visual design, different learning styles and accessibility to ensure it concisely encompassed our chosen learning outcomes. We structured these outcomes around the GMC guidance and the realistic needs of UK medical students, as well as confronting recent challenges presented by the pandemic.

As current students we were well-positioned to appreciate students’ needs and priorities, namely their performance on clinical placement and in exams. This resulted in us including a short quiz to embed what had been learned and cases to encourage students to apply their knowledge to real-life scenarios.

We hope our e-learning module will bolster students’ confidence in communicating in challenging scenarios during their studies. It is designed to supplement existing communication skills teaching and allow students to revise key concepts at home, and at times to suit them.

Effective communication will remain an essential part of their professional skill set throughout their careers and in clinical practice. It will be fundamental in creating positive interpersonal relationships, with colleagues, patients, and their relatives, and they will likely need to constantly learn new ways of communicating in different situations as they arise. This learning resource aims to provide the basis for this lifelong learning.

Participating in this competition has been a great experience and a major influence on our own professional identity. It has made us realise how much more we can do as students, medical educators, and future doctors in improving communication in a healthcare setting.

We will take with us the value of taking the initiative, being innovative and collaborative practice into our careers. We would like to take this opportunity to thank the GMC and MSC for holding the competition, and we would encourage other medical students to enter it this coming summer.