Elective planning dos and don'ts

By rights I should have had the most seamless time organising my elective. After all, I had just taken a year out of my medical studies to set up The Electives Network (TEN). Twelve months spent gathering information on hospitals all over the world and digitising thousands of student feedback reports to build a resource to help other medical students.

Instead, for no very good reason, I obstinately ignored all this information and sat down to try to find an elective opportunity in a remote part of the world that no medical student had been to before. I very soon realised that getting everything arranged was far from quick and easy. The experience of planning my elective, combined with the feedback we've received from many TEN users, has revealed many of the dos and don'ts for planning your elective. Here are two that particularly stand out for me.

Making it happen

You'll hear it time and time again … 'apply early'. This really is good advice. Things frequently don't work out entirely as planned. At TEN, we are regularly contacted by students searching for last-minute options because things have fallen through.

Popular electives with an easy application process are usually swamped with applications from students all over the world and places get booked up, sometimes years in advance. For electives off the beaten track, things are typically less well set-up and this can make the process time-consuming and frustrating.

Getting your request to the right person may be hard due to high staff turnover and email addresses going out of date (although TEN will do all we can to help with this). Similarly, the bureaucratic steps to get your application approved can be confusing and take many weeks or months.

Even submitting multiple applications in parallel can be problematic, because having to back out of one acceptance in favour of another can damage goodwill, particularly when staff have gone out of their way to set everything up. So, in the end, there's no substitute for having plenty of time in hand.

Language barriers

Something that may seem obvious, but is less commonly discussed at elective planning events, is the issue of the language barrier. There are plenty of countries around the world where it's easy to imagine you will be able to get by with speaking English because it's listed as an official language. However, the reality on the ground can often be different, with patients outside the big cities speaking little or no English.

This may leave you reliant on your colleagues to help you with translation. In a hectic A&E department, for example, people may not have the time for this, leaving you feeling disconnected with what is going on.

This shouldn't mean you need only consider countries like the US and Australia for your elective, far from it, it can help you to deal better with the language barriers you'll experience in your future medical career. But I would certainly advise taking the time to learn as much of the local language/dialect as you can before you arrive (and ideally enough terminology to allow you to take a simple history from a patient and examine them).

My biggest piece of advice, before all of this is to give yourself the time to let your imagination wander. Your elective remains an opportunity to experience a slice of healthcare you may never get to experience again. Wherever you end up and whatever you do, I wish you a safe, enjoyable and memorable elective!

This guidance was correct at publication 28/11/2013. It is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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