Last week, Valencia College in Orlando announced that it will permanently eliminate a practice that, while commonly used in medical-training fields, makes most people cringe when they hear about it: asking students to volunteer for medical diagnostic testing in the classroom so everyone gets some real-life experience with various procedures. It's common for students in medical programs to practice such things as blood draws and abdominal exams on fellow students, even if it seems somewhat invasive to people outside the field.
But when it came to light last month that two female students attending Valencia sued the school because they claim they were browbeat into volunteering for one particularly invasive procedure – transvaginal ultrasound, an internal ultrasound that helps medical professionals get a closer look at female reproductive organs – the school quickly came under fire. The students say they were told that if they didn't agree to have the ultrasounds, they would have to leave the program or be "blacklisted" from working at local hospitals. Valencia College first responded to the suit by pointing out that peer physical examinations – known as PPEs – are a commonly accepted practice in medical-training programs across the nation. And indeed, some of the medical professionals we talked to say they practiced various techniques on fellow students when they were in school. Some said their experience was limited to non-invasive examinations; others say they even practiced such things as gynecological pelvic exams on fellow students.
But shortly after Valencia defended itself in the media, it did an about-face. On May 26, college president Sandy Shugart said the school would "permanently discontinue the use of student volunteers for transvaginal ultrasound scanning."
The school says it conducted a "comprehensive external investigation and a thorough internal review" and decided to instead rely on teaching methods that "employ sophisticated simulators," in place of student volunteers – something the lawsuit against Valencia claims has been an option for the school, which has simulators in the classroom already.
We called several other colleges that offer diagnostic medical sonography programs in the state to see what they were doing to get students the practice they needed. Would a ban on student volunteers put Valencia College at a disadvantage if other schools in the state were indeed using them? By press time, we weren't able to confirm the policies on using student volunteers at either Polk State College or Pensacola State College, both of which offer diagnostic sonography programs, but we did get responses from both Miami Dade College and Hillsborough Community College. According to Hessy Fernandez, director of media relations for Miami Dade College, the school "does not allow students to practice or examine one another. In addition to high-tech simulators, Miami Dade College at times uses paid subjects for some exams."
At Hillsborough, there is limited use of student volunteers in a very controlled setting. According to Ashley Carl, executive director of marketing and public relations for the school, students can volunteer "to get extra practice" when they complete the program. Only, they aren't practicing on other students – they're practicing on themselves.
"What will happen is the student volunteer who is on the table will be fully covered up and will insert the probe into themselves," she says. One instructor and one other student must be on hand to supervise, but she says the exam happens in a "very private" setting rather than in a class in front of other students. "The other student will help do the guiding for the student who has the probe within them, and they will help remove the probe."
She says that typically, only about four to six students per year request the session, which she says can be a valuable learning experience for the students. But it's not part of the curriculum, she says, and nobody is asked to undergo it.
Although Shugart's statement implies that Valencia is through with student volunteering for good, it does also state that the school plans to "review and evaluate all of our educational programs on a frequent basis." Perhaps if it evaluates its sonography program practices again, it can take a page from Hillsborough's playbook. – Erin Sullivan