Critical Values: The Burden, Promise and Realization of Virtual Interviews for Pathology Residency During a Pandemic

The SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to cause increased infections and deaths around the world with considerable impact on clinical and laboratory medicine communities. Meanwhile, medical students and the medical community are also undertaking the yearly tribulation of residency interview season. Following the May announcement by the Coalition for Physician Accountability’s Work Group on Medical Students,1 the 2020 interview season will be entirely conducted utilizing virtual interviews. In pointed response to this change in format, residency programs rapidly scrambled to bolster websites, increase their social media presence, add virtual tours and prepare for the virtual interview format prior to the start of interview season. Now, at the midpoint of interview season, it is evident that some burdens of traditional on-site interviews are indeed being alleviated. Whether or not online resident socials and virtual tours can sufficiently substitute for all aspects of on-site visits and if the promise of increased spread of geographic and cultural diversity can be realized remains to be accurately assessed. The survival of the virtual format may even depend on this assessment.

The average cost of traditional on-site pathology interviews has continued to increase for medical students from a per person average of $3400 in 2015 to $4000 in 2020.2 Much of this expense comes from travel/transportation while some pathology programs provided accommodations. Additionally, interview season required about 20 total days away from medical school. To cover these expenses, about half (49%) of medical students borrow money for interviews . Not surprisingly, the majority of them agree that travel (79%) and lodging (65%) are overly burdensome components of interview season.2 Beyond accounting, the salient impact of these time and financial investments is that they were influencing the majority (58%) of interview decisions.

While the rising time and financial burdens of traditional on-site residency interviews were well-known and there was and continues to be a myriad of ideas3 on how to best address these concerns and the match overall, a small burgeoning literature on virtual resident interviews was available prior to the pandemic that showed promise for addressing these concerns.4,5 That is, in the 2020 – 2021 residency interview season, medical students are estimated to spend about 3.5 hours on an average virtual interview day instead of the 8 hour day of a traditional interview and through the elimination of travel time they may spend 7 less days on the interview trail. Thus, the cost of interviewing is also projected to be skeletonized to that of necessary professional clothing and computer hardware. Additional promising data from this small body of research suggests that 85% of virtual interviewees were satisfied with their understanding of the program and their ability to present themselves to residency programs.6 Furthermore, the fact that the residency program’s rank list showed no significant impact based on whether candidates interviewed virtually or in-person suggests that residency programs may feel capable of fairly assessing candidates.7

Beyond time and financial savings for pathology residency applicants and the assessment of candidates by residency programs and vice versa, the measurability of additional outcomes may be critical to the continuation of virtual resident interviews. In particular, there is great interest in online social events and interview day resident panels as a sufficient substitute for the naturally evolving casual conversations that occur during the dinners, lunches and tours available with on-site visits. Also, whether or not these socials combined with interviews with a small subset of faculty can accurately portray a pathology residency program’s culture. In prior surveys that compared in-person, virtual or a combined approach to interviews, candidates always favored in-person assessment when given the choice. The present circumstance will perhaps be the best attempt at an unbiased assessment of the perception of culture through virtual interviews. Last but not least, given the turbulent nature of race relations and culture in the United States over the last year combined with the ability of applicants to virtually interview without travel or financial restrictions, it will be absolutely critical to understand if virtual interviews portend to increase the spread of geographic and cultural diversity among applicants to pathology residency programs. That is, if current trends in resident recruitment can be altered from the current rate of 40 – 60% intraregional resident matriculation or whether the needs of financial and family assistance and/or intraregional familiarity are insurmountable.8 For if the potential for greater diversity is attainable in a significant manner that can be perpetuated into the future, it will be hard to argue for a return to the traditional format. That said, there will likely be bias in the data as an increasing number of pathology residency programs have heard the call to arms and are marching towards diversity, inclusion and equity through greater promotion, recruitment and retention efforts.9

In a tumultuous year that has included race relations reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era combined with a total number of worldwide pandemic deaths similar to the 1957 or 1968 influenza pandemics, medicine continues its steady progression toward improved healthcare and education for all. Following the May 2020 recommendations to implement virtual residency interviews, pathology residency programs moved expeditiously to bolster their websites, increase their social media presence, add virtual tours and prepare for the virtual interview format. Amid this tumult, the virtual interview format has already served to lessen the burdens of time and cost while also serving the practical needs of interview assessments for both medical students and residency programs. Yet, only time and methodical assessment will tell if the virtual interview format eliminates the impact of these burdens on residency decisions, allows both parties to adequately assess cultural fit and if the format and its advantages are here to stay. Regardless, it is imperative that the emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity remains irrespective of future format.

References

  1. The Coalition for Physician Accountability’s Work Group on Medical Students in the Class of 2021 Moving Across Institutions for Post Graduate Training Final Report and Recommendations for Medical Education Institutions of LCME-Accredited, U.S. Osteopathic, and Non-U.S. Medical School Applicants.
  2. Pourmand, A., Lee, H., Fair, M., Maloney, K. & Caggiula, A. Feasibility and usability of tele-interview for medical residency interview. Western Journal of Emergency Medicine 19, 80–86 (2018).
  3. Hammoud, M. M., Andrews, J. & Skochelak, S. E. Improving the Residency Application and Selection Process: An Optional Early Result Acceptance Program. JAMA – Journal of the American Medical Association 323, 503–504 (2020).
  4. Chandler, N. M., Litz, C. N., Chang, H. L. & Danielson, P. D. Efficacy of Videoconference Interviews in the Pediatric Surgery Match. J. Surg. Educ. 76, 420–426 (2019).
  5. Vining, C. C. et al. Virtual Surgical Fellowship Recruitment During COVID-19 and Its Implications for Resident/Fellow Recruitment in the Future. Ann. Surg. Oncol. 1 (2020). doi:10.1245/s10434-020-08623-2
  6. Healy, W. L. & Bedair, H. Videoconference Interviews for an Adult Reconstruction Fellowship: Lessons Learned. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery – American Volume 99, E114 (2017).
  7. Vadi, M. G. et al. Comparison of web-based and face-to-face interviews for application to an anesthesiology training program: a pilot study. Int. J. Med. Educ. 7, 102–108 (2016).
  8. Shappell, C. N., Farnan, J. M., McConville, J. F. & Martin, S. K. Geographic Trends for United States Allopathic Seniors Participating in the Residency Match: a Descriptive Analysis. J. Gen. Intern. Med. 34, 179–181 (2019).
  9. Ware, A. D. et al. The “Race” Toward Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Pathology: The Johns Hopkins Experience. Acad. Pathol. 6, (2019).

-Josh Klonoski, MD, PhD, is a chief resident at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, with a focus in neuroinfectious disease and global health. He has completed the first year of a neuropathology fellowship (out of sequence) and is in his final year of an anatomical and clinical pathology residency. Dr. Klonoski will return to the second neuropathology fellowship year in 2021 – 2022 and apply for a mentored clinical scientist research career development award (K08). The focus of his laboratory research is influenza and active projects include flu pneumonia, super-infections, encephalitis and oncolytic virotherapy.

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