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Preparing medical students for a pandemic: a systematic review of student disaster training programmes
  1. James Ashcroft1,
  2. Matthew H V Byrne2,
  3. Peter A Brennan3,
  4. Richard Justin Davies1,4
  1. 1 Cambridge Colorectal Unit, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, UK
  2. 2 Department of Urology, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, UK
  3. 3 Maxillofacial Surgery, Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth, UK
  4. 4 School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr James Ashcroft, Cambridge Colorectal Unit, Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge CB2 0QQ, UK; jamesashcroft36{at}


Objective To identify pandemic and disaster medicine-themed training programmes aimed at medical students and to assess whether these interventions had an effect on objective measures of disaster preparedness and clinical outcomes. To suggest a training approach that can be used to train medical students for the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Results 23 studies met inclusion criteria assessing knowledge (n=18, 78.3%), attitude (n=14, 60.9%) or skill (n=10, 43.5%) following medical student disaster training. No studies assessed clinical improvement. The length of studies ranged from 1 day to 28 days, and the median length of training was 2 days (IQR=1–14). Overall, medical student disaster training programmes improved student disaster and pandemic preparedness and resulted in improved attitude, knowledge and skills. 18 studies used pretest and post-test measures which demonstrated an improvement in all outcomes from all studies.

Conclusions Implementing disaster training programmes for medical students improves preparedness, knowledge and skills that are important for medical students during times of pandemic. If medical students are recruited to assist in the COVID-19 pandemic, there needs to be a specific training programme for them. This review demonstrates that medical students undergoing appropriate training could play an essential role in pandemic management and suggests a course and assessment structure for medical student COVID-19 training.

Registration The search strategy was not registered on PROSPERO—the international prospective register of systematic reviews—to prevent unnecessary delay.

  • education & training (see medical education & training)
  • medical education & training
  • trauma management
  • accident & emergency medicine

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository. Not applicable.

This article is made freely available for use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

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Global disasters, such as a pandemics or warfare, are events that cause a major disruption to health and social care, industry and economy, and community and education.1 Disasters on this scale result in substantial loss of life, and an immeasurable burden is placed on healthcare services to deliver core medical care.1 Disaster healthcare provision requires a collaborative approach that uses the expertise and skills of as many people as possible.

Much of what is formally taught in medical school is around the knowledge, skills and behaviours required of a physician for patients at the bedside.2 However, the broad training medical students receive could be applied to disaster scenarios especially if supported with adjunct specialist training. The current medical student curriculum already covers a wide range of specialties, and some may argue it is stretched. However, the rising incidence of worldwide disasters and the impact of the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has justified the need for disaster preparation training in medical students.1 In some respects, students with disaster training may be better suited to assist in both clinical and non-clinical roles in disaster scenarios than redeployment of senior physicians with super-specialist skills and knowledge. Curricula using multidisciplinary methods of simulation and human factors training have been proposed for implementation by the USA (Association of American Medical Colleges3) and Europe (Government of the Federal Republic of Germany4 and Research Center in Emergency and Disaster Medicine and Computer Science Applied to Medical Practice, Italy5). However, at present, it is recognised that there is a brief or non-existent exposure to disaster training within current medical training curricula across the world, which may leave students unprepared for an intimidating and unfamiliar setting if assisting in the healthcare workforce.1

The current COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly driving the need for healthcare workers in the UK.6 On 24 March 2020, the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock announced plans to introduce medical students as volunteers to the NHS in order to assist in this pandemic.7 In response, the British Medical Association and Medical Schools Council issued clear advice regarding medical students joining the UK healthcare workforce including ensuring correct induction, training and supervision.8 The aim of this study was to systematically review disaster training courses for medical students. We describe the educational structure and methodology employed, and evaluate both preparedness for disaster medicine and learning outcomes to inform the development of COVID-19-specific training programmes.


We adhered to PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta‐Analyses) guidelines and recommendations for systematic reviews of observational studies.9

Data sources

We searched Embase, Medline and Cochrane Central from 1996 for all articles published until 19 March 2020 evaluating training that medical students receive to prepare them for pandemics and disasters, with no language restriction. We identified 1289 articles, which we then screened for inclusion.

Search strategy

The search was conducted using the following Medical Search Headings: ‘Coronavirus’, ‘Covid-19’, ‘SARS virus’, ‘disasters’, ‘natural disaster’, ‘major catastrophe’, ‘mass casualties’, ‘crisis event’, ‘extreme weather’, ‘disease outbreaks’, ‘infectious disease transmission’, ‘epidemics’, ‘pandemics’, ‘mass drug administration’, ‘warfare’, ‘biohazard release’, ‘chemical hazard release’, ‘radioactive hazard release’, ‘radiation exposure’, ‘radiation injuries’, ‘hazardous’, ‘waste’, ‘chemical water pollution’, ‘radioactive water pollution’, ‘medical students’, ‘medical schools’, ‘education’ with terms exploded as appropriate. The search strategy was not registered on PROSPERO—the international prospective register of systematic reviews—to prevent unnecessary delay.

Study selection

We selected randomised controlled trials, case–control studies and cohort studies that measured medical student training outcomes in the context of pandemics and disasters. Studies were selected only if they contained a detailed report of the training implementation and used objective precourse and/or postcourse assessments related to medical student knowledge, attitude, skills or clinical care outcomes. Importantly, if medical student outcomes were grouped with other healthcare students or professionals and not reported separately, the study was excluded. We excluded non-English language articles in order to ensure data quality, logistical training process evaluations, literature reviews, case reports, clinical trial proposals, conference abstracts, editorials, letters and articles evaluating non-medical student populations only. Pandemic infections that may be secondary issues to a disaster, but were not the primary cause, were also excluded, for example, HIV, dengue, malaria; situations where medical students were unlikely to be required to volunteer en masse, for example, active shooter situations; and interventions that were not in a disaster setting, for example, basic life support and routine clinical infection control procedures were excluded. Duplicates were removed and two reviewers (JA and MHVB) independently screened titles and abstracts using Rayyan, an online software to aid blinded abstract screening.10 Any discrepancies were resolved by consensus. Of the 1289 citations screened, we identified 65 articles for full text and reference review, of which 23 final studies met the inclusion criteria for data synthesis (figure 1).

Figure 1

PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) search strategy flow diagram.

Data extraction

Two reviewers (JA and MHVB) independently extracted relevant information from each training report using standardised data extraction proforma in keeping with Best Evidence Medical Education recommendations and one author with medical training expertise (RJD) reviewed all extracted data.11 We recorded administrative information including authorship, institution and year of publication; training-related data including details and duration of intervention, participants and teaching methods; and quantitative and qualitative outcome measures.11 The quality of training intervention and risk of bias in reporting of results was assessed using the ROBINS-1 for non-randomised controlled trials.12


Meta-analysis was not performed on the training outcomes assessed due to the wide heterogeneity in training interventions and reporting of results. Descriptive analysis was performed instead. Interventions were assessed against Kirkpatrick criteria and Kirkpatrick’s levels were assigned: impact on learners’ satisfaction (level 1), changes in learners’ attitudes (level 2a), measures of learners’ knowledge and skills (level 2b), change in learners’ behaviour (level 3), changes to clinical processes/organisational practice (level 4a) and benefits to patients (level 4b).11


Characteristics of included studies

Twenty-three studies met the inclusion criteria, and their characteristics are displayed in table 1. The majority of studies (n=18, 78.3%) were from the USA, and other countries were Germany (n=1), Israel (n=1), Italy (n=1), Saudi Arabia (n=1) and South Korea (n=1). Five studies (21.7%) involved a multidisciplinary cohort and reported outcomes for other healthcare students and professionals, as well as outcomes for medical students individually without pooling of results.

Table 1

Course characteristics, structure and content

The course structures and learning objectives were grouped into three categories: broad concepts in disaster medicine (n=12, 52.2%), trauma or haemorrhage mass casualty management (n=8, 34.8%), or influenza pandemic management, airborne viral management or personal protection (n=3, 13%). The length of studies ranged from single day teaching to 4-week boot camps, and the median length of training was 2 days (IQR=1–14). The majority of training interventions used traditional didactic lectures with simulative or experiential teaching methods, with 12 courses (52.2%) containing lectures and simulation. Of the simulation experiences, four courses (17.4%) contained outdoor actor-based mass casualty simulation. Multimedia approaches were used in eight courses (34.8%) as an adjunct to training, often precourse, in order to efficiently provide material to attendees. Problem-based learning or case-based learning was used as a predominant feature in five courses (21.7%) in a classroom setting with or without other teaching methods. No courses involved only didactic teaching methods, which is reflective of the learning objectives of disaster medicine preparedness.

Study design and quality assessment

All 23 included studies were prospective cohort studies measuring the impact of their training intervention postcourse evaluation, with 18 using precourse evaluation for comparison as displayed in table 2. The majority used subjective assessments of knowledge or preparedness in disaster medicine (n=20, 87.0%) with nine studies (39.1%) using objective measures. There was a wide range in number of medical students attending the courses, with the median number of participants being 61 (IQR 24–123). However, five studies did not clearly describe their medical student population, either omitting total number of participants or seniority of students. Only two studies13 14 reported data that assessed longitudinal learning beyond the year of course implementation. Common limitations of study design included training being limited to a single institution, studies which were excluded due to being randomised controlled trials evaluating the efficacy of different teaching methods or simulation technology, or studies excluded due to reporting medical student outcomes pooled with outcomes of other healthcare student or professionals.

Table 2

Precourse and postcourse test outcomes

Study evaluation and main findings

Of the studies included in this review, 18 studies in total measured precourse and postcourse outcomes. Of these 18 studies, knowledge was measured in 16 (88.9%), of which 10 undertook objective knowledge measurements, making this the most measured outcome. However, none of the subjective or objective measures of knowledge were previously described or undertaken with validated measures. A total of four studies measured attitude—either preparedness for disaster (n=2) or confidence in approaching a disaster (n=2) by precourse and postcourse assessment. Disaster medicine skills were subjectively measured in four studies and objectively measured in two, one being pass rates in personal protective equipment fitting and the second being accuracy of disaster triage. In these studies, validated measures were used to create scores or pass rates. Of the five studies inviting a multi-disciplinary participant group, none used validated crew resource management or teamwork training measures, as human factors types skills may be challenging for medical student cohorts to acquire. However, all five studies improved attitudes towards multidisciplinary healthcare teams. No studies included in this review recruited or involved patients in any of the course curriculum.

An evaluation of all 23 study outcomes and findings included in this review are displayed in table 3. Knowledge was evaluated in 18 studies (78.3%), 14 studies (60.9%) evaluated attitude and 10 studies (43.5%) assessed skills. No studies assessed clinical performance. Kirkpatrick criteria were then analysed for each study.

Table 3

Study outcome measures and main findings

Level 1: trainee satisfaction

Trainee satisfaction was assessed in 13 (56.5%) studies and most commonly assessed using Likert type scales. Medical students were asked to rate the overall quality of the courses in addition to whether they would recommend courses to colleagues for disaster preparedness. Course satisfaction was generally very high and appeared to be enhanced by multimodal approaches to curriculum design including the incorporation of simulation and technology.15 However, one group discussion and interactive activity-based study did report mixed reviews with postcourse overall ratings of positive (33%), undecided (13%) and negative (54%). This is reflective of overburdening medical students with work, with one student stating, “This was way more work than it should have been. I would rather have an hour lecture on the flu than do all that group stuff. This was just frustrating to have at the end of the year when finals are right around the corner”.16

Level 2A and 2B: trainee attitudes, knowledge and skill acquisition

Attitudes and perceptions of knowledge in medical students were assessed in 10 studies (43.5%). Attitudes were broadly assessed as level 2a following courses measuring either a simple change such as interest in disaster medicine, a measurement of a medical student’s willingness to volunteer in or preparedness to practice disaster medicine, or by mapping trainee responses to learning objectives. Level 2b was measured by a total of 20 studies (87.0%) which assessed medical student knowledge or skill acquisition, with 18 assessing knowledge and 11 assessing skills, either alone or in combination. In courses training students in mass casualty scenarios, discrete and measurable skills were easily assessed including tourniquet application and triage skills.15 17

Level 3: behavioural change

As behavioural change is a difficult area to measure in non-practicing medical students, only one study was deemed to adequately assess behavioural change. This study assessed confidence and perceived stress handling emergencies once the medical students had graduated 1.5 years following the course.13

Level 4: clinical performance

No studies investigated the impact of disaster training on clinical performance (level 4a) or organisational delivery of care (level 4b).

Risk of bias

All included studies were cohort studies and risk of bias was assessed using ROBINS-1 (figure 2).12 Risk of bias was low to critical (figure 3). Confounding bias was serious overall as many studies did not present pretest control data. There was critical overall bias in the selection of participants as courses were often not open to all students, for example, self-selected recruitment from student emergency medicine interest groups. Classification bias and bias due to deviation from intended interventions was low. A single study had a classification bias because they did not adequately describe their educational intervention—as all other studies had low bias, this domain was classified as having low overall bias.

Figure 2

Individual risk of bias for non-randomised control trials determined by ROBINS-1.

Figure 3

Overall risk of bias for non-randomised control trials determined by ROBINS-1.

Overall missing data bias was moderate as three studies had some form of missing data and were not able to adjust for this in their analysis. Measurement of outcomes had serious bias overall, as many questionnaire evaluations were subjective without any objective measures. Selection and report of results had serious bias overall. while some studies did note ethical approval there was no priori registration of the results and some studies had limited reporting of results.


This systematic review identified approaches used to train medical students in disaster medicine in order to suggest training approaches for medical students in the current COVID-19 pandemic. We identified 23 studies published between 1996 and March 2020. Overall, medical student disaster training programmes improved student disaster and pandemic preparedness and resulted in improved attitude, knowledge and skills. There was an improvement in all studies that measured precourse and postcourse outcomes.

We found that all interventions ranging from simple classroom-based interactive discussion to complex multimodal simulative experiences resulted in improved knowledge, skill and attitudes towards participation in disaster medicine. The main outcomes of the courses reviewed were subjective; however, there was evidence to suggest that disaster medicine training does improve objective knowledge and can teach skills which can be used by medical students, relevant to a pandemic. The majority of courses were just 1 day in duration, indicating that short courses can still be impactful. The courses identified in this review required expert faculty or high-fidelity equipment and were implemented alongside an already busy medical school curriculum. These barriers prevented the majority of courses in this review from reaching longitudinal integration into medical school training. However, this may be overcome in the current COVID-19 pandemic by collaboration and coordination, particularly when many medical students have had their studies either postponed or converted to telemedicine/online teaching.

The main limitations of this review are related to study design, as the majority of studies were single centre and often focused on very specific aspects of disaster medicine. The overall reporting of both participant factors and outcome factors was generally poor, and the educational methodology was very heterogeneous—this was represented by critical risk of bias in selection of participants, and serious risk of bias in measurement of outcomes. This bias inevitably weakens the strength of the conclusions drawn, but given that all studies demonstrated a positive benefit, it can still be concluded that there will be benefit to students who undertake disaster preparedness courses.

Another limitation was the Kirkpatrick levels that were evaluated. Only one study evaluated change in behaviour (level 3) and no studies evaluated change in clinical performance (level 4a) or organisational patient benefit (level 4b). Furthermore, only three studies focused solely on pandemic influenza, airborne viral management or personal protective equipment (n=3, 13%), and only a single study assessed resuscitation in a disaster setting. This is of particular importance for the COVID-19 pandemic, where respiratory personal protective equipment is a necessity and there are specific resuscitation guidelines.18 Clinical impact and clinical utility must be taken into account when making suggestions for training during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although medical students working during the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be deployed to non-infectious areas of work, there is no guarantee that medical students will not be exposed to the virus.19 Furthermore, a strain will be placed on healthcare services and contingency care may need to be provided in place of a traditional care service.20 Here, students may be essential in preserving the resilience of hospitals and community healthcare systems.20 There will ultimately be more pressure on medical students to work than previous cohorts and this review suggests that disaster medicine training as a part of medical school’s curriculum is not common practice. Therefore, medical students may require a very different set of competencies than those acquired during medical school. Unsurprisingly, some final year medical students do not feel ready to start as a newly qualified doctor, due to worries they are not well prepared for clinical placements, or feeling under prepared for COVID-19.21 Moreover, the Medical Schools Council have advised that medical students from any year should not take on roles that will impact on their studies.8

This review suggests that early mobilisation of medical students into the workforce could be accompanied by disaster medicine training. All courses reviewed in this study were positively evaluated by medical students, and if a similar programme was offered to current medical students, it would likely be well received improving willingness and preparedness to work in the healthcare service. This is of particular importance as medical students are already being asked to join the workforce as volunteers, or to graduate early in order to join healthcare systems as physicians. There is great concern that students who give assistance during a disaster without training are at an increased risk of both harm to themselves and psychological consequences.22 There is therefore a need to create novel courses to teach medical students pandemic skills in these unprecedented circumstances.

This review suggests that the most beneficial medical student disaster medicine courses should consist of mixed modalities of didactic sessions, case-studies, practical hands on training and simulation experiences.

Suggested structure for COVID-19 training for medical students

These training methods could be used to train medical students in COVID-19 specific knowledge and skills and prepare them for clinical practice. Table 4 shows a proposed COVID-19 course and assessment based on the findings of this systematic review. The course structure includes the variety of elements found in other studies. Didactic lectures on COVID-19 could be delivered in a lecture hall with social distancing measures in place, or perhaps more appropriately as a distance learning component consisting of video, podcast and computer activities. Practical activities could include fitting of respiratory personal equipment as well as donning and doffing. The simulated element could consist of a patient with COVID-19 who requires cardiopulmonary resuscitation. In resource-limited scenarios, this could be undertaken using computer-based tutorials or video tutorials. As new doctors and medical students may have a substantial volume of information to learn in addition to this course, handouts and online refresher courses should be offered. The proposed assessment aims to cover all Kirkpatrick levels and criteria. It is also important to teach and train human factors awareness, particularly in relation to team dynamics, lowering authority gradients and empowering anyone to speak up if concerned.23 Maintaining both individual and team situational awareness is also important during any clinical duty, and even more so during a crisis setting.23 It may be useful to incorporate a credentialing process for medical students undergoing disaster training, thereby allowing students to demonstrate a background of competency and separating this cohort from unskilled volunteers when aiding a disaster medicine response.24 The successful implementation of these suggested disaster training techniques will require the encouragement of people-centred training, the development of peer-learning, coordination and funding of training systems, and regular disaster preparedness exercises of multimodality format.25

Table 4

Suggested COVID-19 course and assessment structure


The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to healthcare services in peacetime. Medical students may play a crucial role in the healthcare response. There is an imminent demand for educational interventions to train medical students to better assist in this response. The disaster medicine courses reviewed in this article improved knowledge, skills and attitudes through multimodal techniques and were well received by learners. Although no studies in this review demonstrated direct patient benefit, the courses increased student preparedness and similar courses should be implemented prior to medical students joining the healthcare workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic. Future courses should note the methodological and longitudinal flaws demonstrated in previous studies so that direct patient benefit can be demonstrated in the COVID-19 pandemic. Future work should be undertaken to ensure the successful integration of disaster training into global medical school curricula.

Main messages

  • Medical students could play a crucial role in the SARS-CoV-2 healthcare response.

  • Disaster medicine programmes using multimodal techniques improve knowledge, skills and attitudes which are imperative for medical practice in a pandemic.

  • Training programmes incorporating previously successful techniques could ensure the successful integration of disaster training into global medical school curricula.

Current research questions

  • Do disaster training programmes aimed at medical students demonstrate direct patient benefit?

  • Can disaster training programmes improve the integration of medical students into the healthcare workforce during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic?

  • How can disaster training programmes be adapted to manage future pandemics?

Data availability statement

Data are available in a public, open access repository. Not applicable.



  • JA and MHVB are joint first authors.

  • Twitter @JamesAshcroftMD, @mhvbyrne, @BrennanSurgeon, @jdcamcolorectal

  • Contributors JA and RJD undertook conceptualisation of this article. JA and MHVB undertook data collection, analysed the data, and drafted and revised the manuscript. RJD and PB undertook critical review of all data collection and analysis and guided critical revisions. RJD approved final manuscript for submission.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.