Reluctantly, faculty and students at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis added social distancing to this year’s Match Day, the celebrated annual milestone when U.S. medical students learn where they will train as residents after graduation.
For the medical school’s 2020 class of 118 physicians-to-be, as well as for hundreds of medical students nationwide, the highly anticipated, momentous occasion turned into a virtual event.
In early March, the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and the uptick in cases of COVID-19 prompted university faculty and students to revise plans for Match Day to comply with public health and regional mandates requiring self-isolation. The aim was to prevent and slow the virus’s infection rate.
Instead of faculty, family and friends clapping and cheering for medical students in the Eric P. Newman Education Center, they offered congratulations through FaceTime, Zoom and various social media platforms. High-fives translated into “likes” expressed with Instagram hearts, Twitter retweets and Facebook thumbs-up. Person-to-person hugs became online hugs. And selfies of one or two students replaced group snapshots of smiling classmates bonded by the academic and emotional rigors of medical school.
“This certainly was an unforgettable Match Day,” said Kathryn M. Diemer, MD, the School of Medicine’s assistant dean for career counseling and a professor of medicine who has overseen Match Day for 20 years. “But its unusualness takes away nothing from the Class of 2020’s accomplishments, dedication and compassion.
“Besides matching during the coronavirus pandemic, this class is unique in many notable ways,” Diemer said. “These students have achieved a broad range of honors and awards representing nearly every core medical specialty. A higher-than-average number of students will graduate with dual degrees. This group also navigated the start of the medical school’s curriculum renewal process, with many students assuming leadership roles. Undoubtedly, this class is poised for excellence.”
Resilience — a critical trait for a successful doctor — shone through hastily arranged virtual celebrations. One student ushered in Match Day festivities with homemade Vietnamese coffee and a flan dessert. Others attended small potlucks, where students cheered, cried happy tears and bumped elbows as they watched congratulatory faculty videos and read emails revealing residency assignments. Many toasted each other online with mimosas or champagne.
Kate and Will Gerull — high school sweethearts who recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary — hosted a video chat with their West Coast families as they sat side by side at their Central West End dining room table, laptops opened, and waited — nervously, excitedly — for the emails that would reveal the direction of their medical careers.
The pings sounded at 11 a.m. On the count of three, the two read their emails. Smiling, they jumped from their seats. They cheered. They hugged. They kissed.
“We’re staying at WashU,” Kate Gerull exclaimed.
The couple matched to Barnes-Jewish Hospital, their first choice in the highly competitive specialties of orthopedic surgery (Kate) and general surgery (Will).
“It is the affirmation and celebration of four years of intense study, long nights and meaningful connections that we have made to achieve our final goal of becoming doctors,” said Strong, a soon-to-be resident in a combined internal medicine and pediatrics program at the University of Michigan Hospitals in Ann Arbor. “Many of us were heartbroken when we learned that our community celebration would occur online. But we rose up and made the most of it. I have felt a continued sense of mutual understanding that while Match Day 2020 is not what we envisioned, it is for the best to safeguard our community’s health.”
Faculty supported students with messages via emails, texts, videos, phone calls and old-fashioned cards. Jessica “Jessi” Gold, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry, and Laurie Punch, MD, an associate professor of surgery, joined faculty at other institutions in creating a social media contest, #DistanceMatch, encouraging students to post fun Match Day videos. “We wanted medical students to feel celebrated,” Gold said. “Medical school is continuous hard work, and we wanted to give them a mental boost before they start their residencies.”
Medical student Kate Douglas celebrated Match Day with close friends and her brother, who lives in St. Louis. She also connected with classmates via video.
“I was sad not to celebrate in person with my amazing classmates,” said Douglas, who learned on Match Day that she soon will begin a residency program in pediatrics with a focus on urban health and advocacy at Boston Children’s Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School. “We realize, though, that the global pandemic is much bigger than any of us, and we are committed to doing what’s right. We are entering the field of medicine at an unprecedented moment, and we’re ready to help.”
Many of the university’s multitalented medical students will stay in St. Louis for residencies at Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. Others matched at hospitals throughout the United States, including Massachusetts General Hospital, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston; University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center; Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore; Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.; McGaw Medical Center of Northwestern University in Chicago; New York-Presbyterian Hospital, affiliated with both Columbia University and Cornell University; and hospitals affiliated with Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
Highlights involving this year’s soon-to-graduate class:
- Of the 118 matched students, 33 will train at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and two at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
- Besides Missouri, the states where the greatest number of School of Medicine students will train include California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Altogether, this year’s class will be represented at hospitals in 17 states.
- With 33 students, internal medicine reigns as the most popular specialty for residency training.
- The next largest group of students — 23 — will train in surgical fields, including nine in general surgery, six in orthopedic surgery and three in neurosurgery.
- This year’s graduating students also boast a higher than usual number of students obtaining dual degrees. Along with medical degrees, 29 also will earn doctorates; five, a master of population health sciences; four, a master of science in clinical investigation; three, a master of public health; two, a master of arts; and one, a master of business administration.
- Overall, the National Resident Matching Program recorded the largest match ever, with 44,959 applicants registered and 37,256 positions offered. The increase can be attributed, in part, to the national program streamlining allopathic and osteopathic positions into a single match system for the first time.
Since 1952, the National Resident Matching Program has acted as a clearinghouse to fill positions at U.S. teaching hospitals, pairing the preferences of graduating medical students with those of residency program directors. Based on ranked lists provided by both groups, a match is generated by a computerized mathematical algorithm.