COVID-19 changed many things in the past year, including how otolaryngology residency programs and applicants interviewed for the National Residency Matching Program.
Explore This IssueMay 2021
Conditions overall weren’t ideal for residency programs deciding who would be their best residents for the next five years—visiting rotations were suspended and in-person meetings moved to virtual platforms. Due to personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages, some programs weren’t even allowed to have away rotators during the 2020-21 Match season, even if they were from a medical school without a home otolaryngology program.
“Our ability to get to know applicants was seen as a significant challenge,” said Steven D. Pletcher, MD, director of the residency program in the department of otolaryngology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), and an Otolaryngology Program Directors Organization (OPDO) council member. Dr. Pletcher added that this year it was much more challenging to provide applicants with a sense of the culture of his program as well as the day-to-day experience of living in San Francisco.
Programs Got Creative
Still, many residency programs went the extra mile to give applicants the best opportunity to get to know the program and its particulars. Programs held virtual information sessions, created residency videos, breathed new life into department websites, and launched social media accounts—primarily on Twitter and Instagram—in the hope of providing applicants with a good sense of the nuts and bolts of their programs as well as the vibe among their faculty and residents.
“One of the biggest issues for us was trying to figure out how to let the students know the subtleties and the character of our program if they’re not physically there to see it,” said Stacey T. Gray, MD, associate professor and residency program director at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Harvard held webinar-type presentations for prospective student applicants. Dr. Gray said doing this virtually meant Harvard could reach a wider audience. Among other topics, these webinars covered basic program details, resident life (this section was run by residents), and research opportunities within residency, since Harvard has a seven-year research track program.
“That isn’t something we had ever done before,” Dr. Gray said. “But we were able to allow students to ask questions of faculty, and often several hundred prospective students attended these presentations. I think before they were even applying, students may have had more information about programs than they ever would have had in a normal year.”
At resident interview time, the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora sent out information sheets to the residents and faculty with each applicant’s hometown, medical school, and listed hobbies so residents and faculty interacting with the interviewees would have a starting point for conversations. To add an even more personal touch, Cristina Cabrera-Muffly, MD, associate professor and residency program director in the department of otolaryngology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, assigned each resident three to four interviewed applicants to call or email after the interview to answer follow-up questions.
Dr. Pletcher said that because the virtual interview process was new for his department, they leaned on advice from their fellowship programs. These programs had already been through a virtual process and used institutional best practices to create a meaningful experience for applicants, while providing faculty the ability to assess applicants’ interpersonal skills. The UCSF program was also creative, using a new virtual platform called Varty for its post-interview social event. Varty creates a casual virtual environment that looks like a party, where people can chat on virtual sofas in small groups.
Dr. Cabrera-Muffly’s program hosted a virtual social hour with a fun twist on the night before each interview day. “Each applicant received a care package with taco seasoning mix, a package of margarita mix that could be used with alcohol or water, and some CU swag so they could participate in a taco party while socializing in small groups.” The program received excellent feedback on this event.