UAlberta medical school responds to COVID-19 restrictions with remote candidate interviews

Rapid action allowed for interviews to be conducted with more than 500 medical school applicants from across Canada.

Laura Vega - 24 March 2020

Responding to current restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry made an unprecedented change to the medical school admissions process by swiftly moving its Multiple Mini Interviews (MMIs) to a virtual setting.

One of the last stages of the admissions process, the MMIs were originally scheduled in-person over the weekend of March 14-15, with 528 candidates coming from all over Canada. Applicants normally go through 'stations' of interviewers, where they have to answer questions or perform small tasks, concluding with a panel discussion. Including the faculty, staff, members of the community and medical students who participate to support candidates and conduct the interviews, more than 1,000 people were going to be part of the process. While closely monitoring the evolving situation related to COVID-19, leaders in the MD program realized that, due to significant health risks, it wouldn't be prudent to hold the interviews in-person.

"Applicants are looking forward to the interviews, they've been preparing for them and we really feel that they provide us with important information," says Tracey Hillier, associate dean of undergraduate medical education. "So we didn't want to take the option of not doing interviews. We thought, 'How can we do it?' And we looked for online alternatives."

"We felt that it was extremely important to still give the candidates an opportunity to tell their story, to present themselves and provide additional information that we don't get from file review," adds Sita Gourishankar, assistant dean of admissions.

Within 48 hours, the dean's office and medical education team were able to find a cloud-based video-conferencing system they could use, and worked with the IT department (MedIT) to take care of the licensing and prepare for remote interviews. On March 11, they notified all candidates of the change so they could cancel their travel plans, and provided them with all the information they would need to participate in the remote interviews.

All U of A members that are traditionally involved in the process collaborated to coordinate the effort and change the setting to conduct the interviews and panel discussions safely. During the process, they quickly solved any technical issues they encountered, ensuring all candidates could complete their MMIs.

Current medical students from all years provided additional support by creating videos of the tours that candidates would have taken on campus and Q & As related to the interview process. "They brought such amazing energy to this and they were right there every step of the way, trying to replicate the experience for applicants," says Hillier.

The experience was considered a success by interviewers and especially by applicants, who have since written to provide positive feedback and thank the MD program for allowing them to participate in their interviews on the originally scheduled dates. Gourishankar and Hillier credit the success of the interviews to the work of administrative staff, faculty, the IT support team, students and community members, who all mobilized quickly and maintained an optimistic attitude to make the virtual option possible.

The medical applicants have now completed the process and are waiting to hear the selection results. For Gourishankar and Hillier, making this quick change provided valuable lessons for the future. Once they are able to obtain more data from the outcomes of the interviews, they both intend to analyze the benefits of including virtual settings in future medical admissions or residency matching interviews.

"We have to always be critically looking at what we're doing and trying to ensure that we are reflective," says Gourishankar. "This process could become more inclusive for both candidates and interviewers; we could ask people that are living in more rural and remote communities to participate virtually."

"When it comes to residency matching, we have students flying all across the country. It's a hugely expensive initiative and environmentally damaging. And when we can show how this has worked, we're hoping that in other high-stakes interview times, like for residency or fellowship positions, this process can be considered," says Hillier.

The positive experience has brought confidence to the MD team in light of the uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the university and the general population.

"I really feel that we would not have taken this challenge on, if we didn't have the team in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry that we have," says Gourishankar. "We were able to be confident in them to be able to pull together and make this happen."

"In a moment of crisis, this faculty stepped up in a way that demonstrates incredible fortitude, resilience and fight. And I think that's something that, in this day and age, especially with what we're facing with COVID-19, is an incredible attribute to have because it gives you a lot of confidence in being here."