If you are in the United States and are impacted by school closures and extended hours due to COVID-19, the COVID-19 Healthcare Workers Childcare Co-op project described in this piece exists to pair you with a college or health sciences student to help with childcare.
The COVID-19 pandemic has relegated medical students to the sidelines of clinical duty. Cancellation of in-person class and clinical rotations combined with protocols for social distancing have left us without our normally packed schedules and to-do lists. Eager to help, many have begun grassroots efforts to support physicians and other frontline health care workers outside of clinical settings and beyond typical roles.
As a medical student with a prior career and a background in technology, I was excited by the opportunity to contribute. I began thinking about how software might enable us to scale beyond the bounds of the tools of typical community organizing. In early March, as the crisis began to intensify domestically, I started brainstorming ways that pre-clinical medical students might be able to help. Anticipating school closures in the community, we immediately thought about how to deploy medical students with unprecedented free time to provide childcare for essential health care workers with children sent home.
The problem of matching the supply of potentially available medical students with the complex particular needs of hundreds of thousands of health care workers is a classic example of the “two-sided market,” as it is known in business and economic thinking. Building these two-sided markets is a notoriously difficult challenge for startups because each side of the market is essentially useless and uninterested without the other. In this case, the platform would not be helpful to health care workers without an ample supply of students, but it could also prove challenging to attract substantive student interest without demonstrating to them that they’d be responding to a concrete need.
Despite the difficulty, I recognized the profound benefits that a centralized approach could have to this type of problem. I predicted local efforts quickly spinning up manual approaches in hundreds or thousands of disconnected spreadsheets all across the country. I envisioned a better way: the network effects of a centralized platform would create a more effective and efficient tool compared to the duplicated and manual efforts of separate people. I imagined that a rudimentary software might be able to automate some of the more time-intensive repeated tasks on a centralized platform — tasks which would otherwise be repeated over and over by volunteers in each locale who could otherwise be doing something more valuable.
Initially, I wanted to be sure that medical students would be willing to share information with a centralized platform that is deliberately institution-agnostic. I built a quick website, hosting a form to take some student information, and circulated it within my networks on social media. Student interest, at least in principle, was high. In an effort to minimize the challenges of a two-sided market, I focused on one or two metro areas to start. The goal was to double down on some traction with students and make sure that we would be ready to be helpful to health care workers. The pilot cities were Philadelphia and St. Louis. In a testament to the service-oriented attitude of medical students, I quickly found a team of eager volunteers ready to jump on the project with me, share it within their student networks and grow our list of volunteers.
Just as it had been with students, health care-worker interest was easy to demonstrate. Within one day of putting out an invitation to St. Louis health care workers to be matched with a helping student, we had more than 200 visitors on the site at once. The student volunteer team was absolutely overwhelmed, despite our success at finding student signups. We had to look closely at whether we were overpromising our time to health care workers. In response, we emphasized that the project was still new and that we should be an option of last resort.
Nevertheless, we have since continued to build our network of volunteers; we now have over 500 students across the country who have expressed interest and hundreds of interested frontline health care workers. Local student initiatives at other schools and in other metros have popped up along the way, and we have shared ideas, collaborated, and helped to promote each other’s efforts. All the while, we have been chipping away at automating pieces of the volunteer onboarding process with little bits of software — an automated text to gather information on a medical student’s availability or a welcome email.
As I learn exponentially in my work on this project, I try to “skate where the puck is going,” as Dr. Fauci likes to say. As the crisis develops, we ask ourselves: how can our efforts thus far empower or enable any coordinated response by local, state, or federal government that may eventually develop? My hope is that our grassroots work driven by the energy and passion of medical students can continue to be harnessed to support our teachers, mentors, and future colleagues in this crisis. Although we are sidelined from clinical duty, it is clear the passion for medicine that we share with those on the frontlines can be leveraged to keep the health system functioning at large.