We asked Janelle Robinson, University Neuropsychiatric Institute Senior Director of Clinical Operations, and Chad Naylor, MHA student, to weigh in on their experiences of being a preceptor and intern during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janelle, how did your experience being a preceptor this year differ from your experiences in previous years?

Janelle: My experience was different this year in a couple of ways. First, adjusting to both me working virtually at times and Chad working virtually at times. The informal “hallway” conversations were fewer than compared to prior years, and it made for scheduled, deliberate interaction to be more important. Second, I felt like my focus was continually shifting as we were needing to be ready to shift to current COVID adjustments. Chad had one consistent project throughout the internship, but he also did many small tasks to help us simply keep up with the rapidly changing physical environment and adjustments needed at our hospital.

Chad, how would you describe your experience of being an intern during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Chad: My internship at UNI was overall a great experience. I learned many things from Janelle Robinson, my preceptor, but also from all the staff at UNI. The experiences I had were very unique because of the pandemic, and I feel much more capable as a healthcare professional because of the challenges that came from doing an internship during the pandemic. For example, almost every meeting I was in was, of course, via the internet. As a result, it was difficult at times to network and get a full experience in comparison to a “normal environment” internship. However, despite the hardships that came with the pandemic, it was beneficial to me. I feel as though I have learned to be very proactive in involving myself in projects, learning about the hospital I was working at, and getting the best educational experience I could.

From your point of view, how has this pandemic impacted mental health awareness and services? Have you seen a shift in community support in or out of the workplace?

Janelle: Through the pandemic, people have delayed necessary mental health treatment and have isolated themselves, which in many cases exacerbates mental health conditions. We have noticed that patients who are coming to receive our services are more acute than prior to the pandemic. In terms of awareness, I feel like the pandemic really has caused us as individuals, families, employers, and communities to talk about our mental health needs, to deliberately take time to focus on taking care of our needs first to then be able to help others.

I like the quote “You can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first!” – or like in an airplane, secure your own air to then help others! The need to take care of ourselves emotionally has never been more important than it is now, and I feel like we have united as mankind in this effort.

Chad: I think the way of the world is luckily moving toward a greater acceptance of mental health awareness. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for mental health awareness. I have not been in the healthcare field long, but I think we have a long way to go. From an employee’s perspective, at University of Utah Health, there have been added measures to ensure that the mental health of their employees is addressed and supported by added resources and support systems.

How do you think interning during the uncertainty of a pandemic could prepare future healthcare leaders to overcome change? How has it helped you in the workplace?

Chad: The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things in healthcare, and in dramatic fashion. Each day during my internship, there were new problems that needed to be solved that seemed to randomly show up out of the blue. Although I was not a healthcare leader during the pandemic, I found myself running through scenarios in my mind of how to solve these problems. I, myself, have seen an increase in the ability of healthcare leaders to be proactive and efficient in making timely and correct decisions for the hospital they work for. The current pandemic has helped me understand what I am capable of. Although the problems were intensified because of COVID-19, I feel I was able to stretch my efforts a little farther as a result. In the end, it helped me become a better co-worker and employee.

What is the most impactful lesson each of you learned through this experience?

Janelle: Things we thought were not possible before became possible when we had no other choice. For example, switching to 100% telehealth for our outpatient services for a time was something that if we had to do without the pandemic pressure would have taken a significant time to shift. I have to think that many of the things we say no to are actually possible, and the pandemic has taught me that if we have to, we can usually find a way to make impossible things happen.

Chad: One of the most impactful lessons I learned during my internship was that, despite very strenuous situations and uncertainty, I am capable of producing very good work. I had one main project that I worked on throughout my internship, and there were many COVID-19-related situations that littered my project plan. For example, I was not able to meet face-to-face with the key stakeholders in the project, and fear of offending and ruffling feathers as a summer intern was a thought in the back of my mind. Although the fear was present, I felt that the proactive mindset that I had because of these COVID-19-related situations will really pay off in the future.

What new best practices have you discovered as you have had to adapt to COVID-19?

Janelle: While prior to the pandemic we had some virtual components to some meetings, we have also proven that meetings can be as effective virtually as in-person, and at times much more efficiently. The use of video enhances the ability to connect, and I believe it should be best practice to turn your video “on.” One of my roles at UNI is overseeing space, a dreaded job that no one asks for! I literally have lost sleep over worrying about how we will have the space we need to grow our programs and keep up with staffing needs. Work from home changes the space crunch in a very positive way. The challenge is how do you keep culture of our teams with limited in-person exposure. Right now, we are thinking that we can have one workspace that is rotated each day of the week by different teams who are working from home to allow for some onsite collaboration while allowing us to use space differently and more efficiently.

Chad: Being personable is not a lost trait in the “Zoom” world. One of the best practices that I learned from some of the directors at UNI was to open up all Zoom meetings with something personal, either a story or a question to spark a small, personal conversation with the group. That helped me to develop relationships where it may have been harder because everything was virtual.