I move slowly to silent the sound of my alarm that’s interrupting the peaceful noise of the waves breaking onto the beach. Heaven. The sun strains through the blinds and scatters across the wall, dancing as the wind blows the slits from side to side. I throw my trunks on and jog down to the beach and immerse myself in the clear blue water. Less than a minute since I awoke, I’m submerged in the most sparkling and beautiful sea I have ever seen. // Walking through the hospital I smile and greet the lovely staff whom I’ve got come to know really well, one of them makes a joke about my attempt at surfing the previous night. I bump into a surgeon and he talks me through the operations on the list today, and eagerly invites me to join him. I quickly check in with my supervisor and then rush over to theatres to scrub in!
The majority of medical students look upon their elective as the highlight of medical school and dream of an experience as amazing as the one I’ve described above. Be that a spellbinding adventure into a different culture, a nosedive deep into a specialism they have dreamt of practicing forever, or scrubbing in and assisting in complicated surgery. As well as sharing the experience in good company, be it with friends or simply healthcare professionals they get on really well with.
In this piece I am focusing on the challenges that medical students face planning an elective to a country they are not familiar with. I acknowledge that some students want to stay in the UK and some students already have contacts in different parts of the world making organising placements easier, but I will not be discussing these students in this essay.
There are many challenges that exist in planning an elective and have always existed. Finding the money to fund the type of placement you want, in an area of the world you want to explore, and a willing and nice supervisor are all logistical tests that need to be overcome.
Finding the money to finance a dream elective is a challenge. Transports, accommodation and hospital fees are all potential outlays of significant finance to a cash strapped student. Without even mentioning the finance needed to live, explore and indulge in the local culture. However today, students are aware of this issue and have numerous tools at their disposal. There are many ways to fundraise for an elective; sponsored events like marathons, part time jobs, or contacting businesses to offer brand enhancement whilst on elective in return for cash can all combine to a meaningful sum of money.
Also with the sheer number of different services available on the Internet, saving money on all the above outlays has never been easier. Applications like Skyscanner can minimise travel costs and sites like Airbnb can put you in contact with potential landlords. However the biggest aid is hearing from previous students and learning from their experiences. Learning from their mistakes, and copying their success.
Contacting older students is also a brilliant way of finding a placement that suits your interests and ideas. Liaising with students from your own university, or reading student reviews on websites such as electives.net can really help vague dreams come to fruition. Through this it also streamlines the process of contacting potential supervisors. Making contact directly with your supervisor can help remove any potential pitfalls in the placement – language barriers, extent of involvement in practice and example working days can all be discussed well in advance of any commitment being made.
To me, the biggest challenge facing medical students planning elective is the fear of failing. There is so much opportunity, so much promise, and so much expectation built upon the elective that when it actually comes round to planning it, it can be very stressful. It’s not only the pressure you’ve put on yourself, but also what society expects. Your friends on Facebook will expect you to post a beautiful sunset picture, your family will expect you to return with anecdotes and stories and your medical school will expect your knowledge and skills to be vastly improved. Too much stress, distress, leads to poor decision-making. The worry of a scenario I describe below can make planning an elective much more difficult than it could be.
My alarm buzzes. Rudely awakening me from the limited sleep I have managed. The air conditioner is still silent and the sun is still relentlessly frying the room. Following multiple snoozes I finally find the willpower to face the day. A cold shower momentarily relieves the warm film of sweaty water coating my skin; but it is soon replaced. I curse as I again realise that // I rush through the hospital in earnest to try and keep my supervisor happy. Head down, not acknowledging anyone, hoping no one acknowledges me. Unfortunately my supervisor is already sat at his desk; he looks up at me, down at his watch and then tuts. Despite being over ten minutes early for clinic I still haven’t met his expectations, and wonder to myself if he’ll ever be satisfied with me. I hazily remember the lovely doctor I corresponded with whom had eagerly agreed to be my supervisor; that was a distant dream when in reality he had had to take leave and rather begrudgingly this consultant had accepted the role in his place. I sit down in my hard chair, in the corner of the room and look across at the window silently dreaming of escaping into the sun.
To successfully plan an elective some amount of stress is needed, to help overcome the challenges I discussed above. But like most things in life, which are stressful – exams, relationships, work; achieving a good level of stress is challenging!