This year’s graduating Harvard Medical School (HMS) students will have the option to receive their diplomas early so that, if they choose, they can quickly be deployed into hospitals where regular staff might soon be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Fourth-year HMS students who have completed all their training and degree requirements, as well as graduating M.D. students from Boston University, Tufts University, and the University of Massachusetts, are being given the option to receive their diplomas before their scheduled graduation date in May.

The change comes in response to a request to the schools from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, citing an expected escalation in local health care workforce needs.

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Approximately 700 medical students in the Boston area are slated to graduate this spring.

Because Harvard University grants HMS M.D. degrees, there were administrative issues to address before the option can become official for HMS students, including deliberation and voting by the Harvard Corporation and the University’s Board of Overseers.

On March 30, the governing boards had approved the proposal, voting “… in view of the extraordinary circumstances posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, to authorize the dean [of the Faculty of Medicine] to approve the early conferral of degrees on students who are currently candidates for Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degrees scheduled to be conferred in May 2020, once such students have been deemed to have completed the requirements for the M.D. degree by the registrar of Harvard Medical School.” The boards said approval must also be granted by University Provost Alan Garber.

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“Students enter our medical schools aspiring to serve and heal. I have never been more proud of our students, many of whom have already expressed their eagerness to graduate early so they can join our hospitals on the front lines to help treat patients amid this pandemic,” said HMS Dean George Q. Daley. “We need their skill and compassion now more than ever, and many are ready, willing and able to answer the call.”

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HMS Dean for Medical Education Edward Hundert told graduating students on a teleconference on March 26 that a number of details must be worked out in the coming weeks. He also emphasized that early graduation will be entirely voluntary and that individual hospital programs where students have matched may or may not build this option into their COVID-19 contingency plans.

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