In March 2020, the situation facing the UK's National Health Service appeared grave. The Covid-19 pandemic had already forced the suspension of non-urgent clinical activity and estimates from the Government suggested that 50% of the workforce could be affected by illness at any one time. In response to this crisis, Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM) in collaboration with North West London Gold Command and Imperial College Healthcare Trust, developed an ambitious volunteering programme to harness the passion and skill of ICSM medical students.
598 students expressed an interest in volunteering for the new ICSM-V (Imperial College School of Medicine – Volunteer Programme) within two days of its launch, reflecting how keen students were to play their part in the coronavirus effort. Led by Professor Mary Morrell and Mr Martin Lupton, the ICSM-V programme not only supported local hospitals but gave medical students an opportunity to experience clinical medicine under pressure at the height of a pandemic.
Concerns for the wellbeing of students were paramount throughout the planning phase of the programme, not only in the potential risk posed by coronavirus exposure, but from the emotional impact of encountering death and dying on such a scale. One of the strengths of the ICSM-V programme was the network of volunteer Academic Tutors, Clinical Teaching Fellows and Directors of Medical Education, who formed a wellbeing network separate from the usual educational support structure of the College, to address the impact of volunteering on individual students.
Students were deployed to the ICSM-V programme at a rapid pace. The plan was introduced to students on 20 March 2020 and the first students started their volunteer placements only 11 days later, following a series of Zoom webinars and induction events. Volunteers were placed in the areas of greatest clinical need, initially in eight partner hospitals around West London and in community settings.
The success of the programme was not only dependent on the cooperation of clinical staff but relied on the expertise and generosity of many unsung people. Imperial College made rooms available near St Mary's Hospital for volunteer students, many of whom had expected to be overseas on clinical electives, and members of the administrative team worked hard to coordinate placements and student feedback. Volunteers drove the Student Union's minibuses to transport students between sites and local businesses donated generously to provide food for the team.
A final project report was written in July 2020, documenting the aims and achievements of ICSM-V. The programme underwent further evaluation by Imperial's Clinical Teaching Fellows with academic support from the Medical Education Research Unit, with plans to publish this work in 2021.