I was elected chair of the BMA Welsh medical students committee in June 2020, at the height of the pandemic, during a time of real uncertainty for many medical students. Final year students were being asked to ‘step up’, and many graduated early to start work on the front line.
At first, I was quite nervous about joining such a large organisation but having already been a member of WMSC for a year, I felt ready for the challenge! Its members were welcoming and friendly, and when it came to chairing the first meeting at the start of the 2021/22 session, I was prepared – largely because of the support I had from the BMA secretariat!
Being chair during COVID-19 had its challenges and I’ve certainly learned a great deal during my time. Students weren’t getting face-to-face teaching and instead most sessions were moved to online. It was an uneasy time and many students – particularly those in their first year of studies – often felt quite isolated.
As a committee, we monitored the effects COVID was having on students. Our reps chatted to their year groups, in person and via social media. I attended meetings with Professor Kamila Hawthorne, the head of graduate-entry medicine at Swansea University Medical School and Professor Steve Riley, the Head of Cardiff University Medical School, where I raised issues medical students had discussed with us. These included mental health struggles and concerns about how COVID had affected exams and teaching.
Our other focus at that time was to make sure students who were helping on the front line were safe and felt confident in speaking up against anything they felt uncomfortable with or that may have affected their health. We wanted to make sure any concerns felt by students around their learning were heard. When the vaccine programme kicked in, we acted to make sure medical students weren’t missed out and received their vaccines in a timely manner, despite often moving around different health boards during their placements.
Students were worried about missing exams and assessments owing to having to isolate, so we acted by meeting with the medical schools. Students shouldn’t be detrimentally affected by something out of their control, so we ensured medical schools had backup exams in place for students to be able to take their exams due to isolating. We also raised the issue of inconsistencies in clinical experience and of in-person or online assessments and lectures.
Another area of work I’m proud to have been a part of is lobbying the Welsh Government to review the NHS bursary. We worked closely with the media and public affairs team to draft letters on behalf of the committee calling for a review of the NHS bursary in Wales, particularly for GEM (Graduate Entry Medical) students who don’t have the same financial support as those studying an undergraduate degree.
Many GEM students are left unable to meet the cost of their tuition fees without external support or income. This is before taking into account their living costs, which they must also cover throughout the four years of their course. It’s therefore unsurprising that the main concern raised by GEM students at Swansea University was financial hardship and the negative effect this has on their mental health. As a result, Welsh Government has assured us it plans to review the bursary and we’ll make sure WMSC has input into that going forward.
Over the past two years, I’ve really enjoyed chairing meetings and working with BMA staff to be at the forefront of issues that are important to medical students across Wales. Whilst I’ll no longer be chair of the committee, I’ll keep a close eye on its work to fight for better for medical students in Wales, and in particular, the outcome of the NHS bursary review.
It’s so important that during tough times, such as the cost-of-living crisis we’re now facing, students feel supported in their studies.
I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work with so many passionate students and the training that the BMA has offered to me. I’ve learnt so much about leadership from my committee and being closely involved with chairs of other committees. In addition, I have been able to attend a leadership course, media training and bystander training through the BMA. I would highly recommend getting more involved with the BMA to any peers who are considering it.