Pandemic Offers Unique Education for Medical Residents Starting Their Careers
by PAMELA PALONGUE
Dr. Akhila Reddy likes practicing family medicine because it provides her with the opportunity to interact with people of all ages and backgrounds, from babies to geriatric patients, with a plethora of medical needs. One thing she couldn’t possibly have foreseen when she started medical school was the arrival of a virus that would change the entire medical landscape.
A first-year resident in the Florida State University College of Medicine Winter Haven Hospital Residency Program, Reddy began her journey into medical education at St. George’s University in the Caribbean. She completed her third and fourth years of medical school in Los Angeles and Miami.
While in these urban environments, she was required to see patients in the field, rather than the more controlled environments of a hospital or clinic. She admits to being apprehensive about treating patients when COVID-19 first emerged.
“I was unvaccinated, and I was still seeing patients,” Reddy explains. “We didn’t know who had COVID and who didn’t.”
Those early days when testing equipment was in short supply were challenging for everyone, but especially the medical professionals in particular, who were continually exposed to the virus and working on the front lines.
She just began her residency in July with the program, which aims to give young doctors much-needed experience while also filling the need for more family practice physicians in Polk County.
Through the Winter Haven Residency Program, six new residents are enrolled each year in hopes that at least half of those new doctors will remain after their residency is finished. This partnership between Florida State University College of Medicine, Winter Haven Hospital and BayCare Medical Group helps to improve access to primary care for local residents.
According to the Residency Program Director, Dr. Nathan Falk, the pandemic has generated some unique challenges in medical education, but the residents have adapted well to virtual learning and telehealth visits, along with increased patient numbers.
“Hospital volumes have been quite high, leading to an abundance of opportunities to learn to care for critically ill patients,” Falk says.
Reddy has found her experience in Central Florida to be quite different from practicing medicine in the urban environments of Los Angeles and Miami. One particularly welcome change is that she actually has a chance to get to know her patients and their needs as she sees them more than once — something that rarely happens in a large city.
Falk says the new residents have settled into the community quite nicely.
“They have already started providing outstanding care for many of our most vulnerable patients. … One of our new residents has already helped deliver more than 15 babies.”
A native Floridian, Reddy grew up in the Orlando area. Despite the close proximity, she had never been to Winter Haven.
“It’s such a charming place with a small-town vibe. I love the little boutiques and that the stores are locally owned.”
She sees it as a community that gives back to itself and has found it to be an easy place to make new friends. At this point, she is planning on staying in the area after her residency ends. Her unique experience with the pandemic will certainly be an asset.
“In med school, we didn’t get exposed to a pandemic. COVID is so different from anything we’ve ever seen before, with so many different symptoms.”
Though she’s seen cases increasing locally, she remains hopeful about the future and dealing with the disease. They routinely screen incoming patients to help protect medical staff and the patients. Also, effective vaccines, cutting-edge therapeutics and a rapidly increasing base of knowledge of the disease have all helped to lessen the threat of COVID-19.
For now, Reddy is seeing patients in an outpatient, pediatric clinic with an 8 to 5 weekday schedule. She has been spared the grueling, sometimes endless hours that many of the residents face in this phase of their careers.
It’s been a long road for Reddy who showed an early interest in the science of medicine. While still in high school, she began volunteering at a local hospital and she recommends anyone who’s interested in pursuing a career in medicine to volunteer in order to see if it’s really right for them.
“Be as hands-on as possible, doing whatever you can to interact with patients.”
With the continuance of the Winter Haven Residency Program, the community will likely see more doctors like Akhila Reddy who are invested in the local communities and the patients which they serve.
Falk is proud of the residency program’s accomplishments so far, and he is hopeful for its future.
“We are incredibly excited to have continued our track record of recruiting a diverse group of Florida natives to train here in Polk County. The residents and faculty are proving to be an incredibly resilient group during one of the most difficult times in medicine.”