One year later: Faculty of Medicine dean reflects on the COVID‑19 upheaval

- March 25, 2021

Dr. David Anderson. (Nick Pearce photo)
Dr. David Anderson. (Nick Pearce photo)

When COVID-19 forced Dalhousie to close its campus in March 2020, it created unprecedented challenges and disruptions to people’s lives, educational experiences and careers.

Since then, the Dal community has found new and notable ways to teach, forge connections and be of service. As we complete a full year within these circumstances, we’re checking in with a few of Dal’s academic leaders to learn how their community overcame obstacles and found opportunity, and to commemorate the effort that’s gone in to getting it done.

Dr. David Anderson, dean in the Faculty of Medicine, was forced to work quickly with faculty, staff and students to address the balance between the health and safety of staff, learners, medical residents and faculty and the Faculty’s various educational and research needs.

One year later, Dr. Anderson reflects on what has changed at the Faculty of Medicine:

How did the upheaval brought on by COVID-19 impact research in the Faculty of Medicine?

It impacted it in many ways. First, it provided opportunity for a lot our researchers, particularly in the vaccinology and infection arenas. For some scientists, it brought tremendous opportunity and significant funding from tri-council and other agencies to support research. It was exciting for those individuals and their teams to be able to do research that was fighting the pandemic.

It also brought our research community together, in particular the supporters of research. Seven different funding agencies in the province came together and developed a coalition of funding support. They supported over 40 scientists in Nova Scotia who were involved in COVID related research projects, and about half of them came from the Faculty of Medicine, and most were from Dalhousie. It was really a great collaborative research opportunity.

Unfortunately, for some it brought quite a bit of disruption to research activities. There was a period of time where some researchers were not able to access their labs and continue with their research, and some of our clinician scientists had their research interrupted. So that was quite disruptive and challenging for those individuals, in particular the students and staff who depended on those research projects to continue their work - it was a challenge. Thankfully, those disruptions were relatively short lived, and the funding agencies were very helpful and noted the disruption that COVID caused and made sure there weren’t major financial hardships for scientists, staff, and students during the pandemic.

What do you see as some of the lasting effects of the pandemic on medical education at Dal?

There was an almost instant switch to using virtual formats for delivering educational opportunities. That was throughout our educational programs from undergraduate medical education and graduate studies to continuing professional development. There were pros and cons with that, and we really learned to embrace the long-term value of providing continuing professional development virtually. It allows physicians around the Maritime provinces to be able to receive education from their homes/offices, without having to travel distances and incur the expense and disruption of having to travel.

There are certainly advantages to offering some virtual educational activities for all levels of learners, but I think we are going to appreciate the value of face-to-face interaction when we’re able to do that again. I know that many of our faculty and our students are really looking forward to getting back.
What has been the most inspiring aspect of leading the Faculty over the past year?

It’s been universally a situation where everyone has stepped up and really did whatever it took to make things work. I’m grateful for everyone that has responded to the challenge. We’ve been able to deliver as good of an educational experience as we possibly could given the circumstances. I’m so pleased with our support staff, such as MedIT, who have gone above and beyond to enable us to get the work done. Their efforts have really been appreciated by everyone.

It’s been a real team effort. The learners and faculty involved in our teaching programs have been flexible and I think everyone is pleased that education has continued. In our medical education, there continues to be in-person activities and people are very appreciative of that.

I want to shout out our Student Affairs and Resident Affairs teams and staff who have reached out and addressed the concerns of our learners, and all the supports from our Program Directors and faculty who made the effort to go above and beyond to support our learners. Our new faculty advisor roles were created to provide similar support for our graduate students. All the support has been incredibly appreciated in this difficult year.

What innovations have you seen emerge out of your Faculty as a result of the pandemic?

There’s been tremendous innovation around what can be done both at an educational and social level to make things work. People have really embraced the technology and the opportunity it provides. There’s certainly been some benefits and some transformations to the way we do things now, and we won’t be going back to how we did it before. The working from home paradigm has really been a positive development and something we can learn from moving forward.

I think everyone appreciates this certainly could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to have the chance to do the system planning, training, and the clinical care aspect of dealing with the pandemic has been incredibly important and rewarding and something we will remember for the rest of their lives.
Some of the systems and processes that would have taken years to develop under normal circumstances happened overnight and many of them worked out very well. For the people in the Faculty of Medicine, there have been a lot of important lessons and people will take these lessons as they move forward in their careers. We spend a lot of time planning for disasters and thinking about pandemics, and having lived through one, we will make better decisions moving forward if, and when something like this were to ever happen again.

Even the concept of people not coming to work when they’re sick. In the past, we would think “it’s just a cold, what’s the big deal?” I think this culture will change.  If you’re sick, stay home and recover. Your colleagues will thank you for your sensitivity.

What important lessons did you learn guiding the faculty through the pandemic?

We learned early on that communication was extremely important. People could handle the disruptions if they knew what to expect, and what the current rules and guidelines were. We’ve seen that example with Public Health, and internally in the Faculty of Medicine, with medical students and residents, who have had their training disrupted. The communication back and forth was something we did to help.

I do feel for our learners. These are years that they aren’t going to get back, going through medical school and residency. I’m confident that they will get a good education and successfully move on with their careers, but you do miss some things living in this virtual world. As we recover from this, we really will appreciate and take advantage of the opportunities to interact and engage with others in our lives.

I think everyone would reflect that it has been very busy. The days are long and the blur between what’s work and what’s not work became challenging. Trying to set boundaries and make sure you have a bit of down time and wellness time while you’re dealing with all the issues that came up around the pandemic is a concern. Working from home has been an interesting change. Many people work really well from home, and I’m sure when we return in the post-COVID era, I expect more people will be working from home and our appreciation and concept of space will change as we move into the future. 
Any parting thoughts?

It’s been a challenge, but I really appreciate all the work from our teams and the support we received from Dalhousie University and their administration, who provided clear guidance and good communication about how things should work.

I recognize from a mental health perspective it’s been challenging, but I think we all have a lot to be thankful for. Our Public Health and government officials did an incredible job to keep people safe and the rates of COVID infection incredibly low. Even though we’ve had some inconveniences, we can all appreciate their efforts to keep us safe.

Credit to everyone involved.


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