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7 Tips to Pick your Medical Elective Placement
  • 26 Feb 2024
  • Medical School

Sam, 4th year UK medical student, shares her guide to selecting an elective placement.

Choosing where to carry out your elective placement can be both an exciting and daunting decision. There are 195 countries across the world and over 4000 cities to choose from, so where do you even begin? I would like to share my insights about the major points to consider when choosing where to do your elective.

1. What Do I Want to Get Out of an Elective Placement?

As expected, when picking a medical elective, it is crucial to have an idea of what you want to get out of your elective. Whether that be areas of research you are interested in following your graduation, working with world-class specialists who can help guide you within your speciality of interest, or gaining a better understanding of working in more, or less, developed parts of the world. There is no specific guide that can help you pick your placement, it comes down to a personal decision based on what you want to gain, whether that be personal fulfilment, career advancement, or something else!


2. Should I Pick the Same Medical Elective as My Friends?

Some groups of friends will have already talked about their elective ideas and have planned something together. It’s fun to be able to travel with friends and spend some quality time together. Sometimes though, plans don’t really work out, people don’t necessarily have the same goals for their electives, or you simply want to do it yourself, and that’s absolutely fine as well.

I’ve also heard plenty of stories where people have coincidentally bumped into each other at the airport and found out that they have arranged to do their electives in the same location. So it all works out eventually!

Whether you choose to go on a placement with friends or not is a decision you shouldn't make lightly.  

3. When should I begin thinking about my medical elective?

Many students consider their medical elective one of their most memorable experiences from medical school. To ensure you make the most out of your elective, it’s crucial to start thinking about your medical elective as early as possible, we recommend between 2 years and 18 months ahead of time. It’s your responsibility to organise and fund your elective, so begin saving money and contacting your university about available bursaries or scholarships that are available to you.

It's important to note, that many of the popular destinations, hospitals, etc, are typically fully booked between 6-12 months in advance, so if you’re considering travelling with a friend, or attending a top hospital, ensure you give yourself ample time to decide on what’s the best decision for you.

If you don’t want to deal with the added stress of dealing with an elective many companies offer packages to organise your elective, although you will find third-party companies are a typically more expensive route when booking.

4. Choosing a Developing vs Developed Country for Your Medical Elective

When choosing an elective people tend to divide their options into two major categories: developing versus developed countries. I cannot say from first-hand experience, but from what I have read, some people described their placements in developed countries as, at times, comparable to their placements at their home university.

However, there are also certain advantages to choosing an elective placement in a developed country; the style of teaching tends to be more familiar and formal, and usually, local medical students are being taught at the same time. Also, while working in a developed country there may be a chance for you to learn about cutting-edge research. On the other hand, peers have told me that in developing countries, it is more likely that you will see a diversity of conditions that you won’t see in developed countries, or at least not to the same extent.

I also know a lot of people who chose to stay in their home country, even at the main hospital of their university, or one near home. This is not a bad decision at all as it should be relatively easy to organise, you are familiar with the hospital site and the staff, and you could attempt to start some longer-term projects or research. Not to mention that you’ll probably save much more money than if you choose to leave the country.

5. Language Barriers

The existence of a language barrier is directly linked to the country where you choose to carry out your elective. Just remember that the language barrier can be between yourself and the patients, but also between yourself and the staff as well. This can pose some difficulties, but I hope that it doesn’t deter you away from some amazing places that you could consider. From speaking to friends who had experienced this obstacle in the past, they said that it didn’t hinder their learning at all and those who could communicate with them were very eager to help them to translate.

6. Selecting an Affordable Medical Elective

The expense is something that is quite easily forgotten in the midst of all the busy and exciting planning for your elective. It is also something that accumulates rather sneakily, and it doesn’t hit you until you receive the bill at the end of it all.

The main expenses you should research are (if applicable): 

  • accommodation
  • flights
  • vaccinations
  • administration and placement fees
  • visa application
  • travel plans
  • insurance

If you have several ideas about where you would like to go for your elective, then it’s a good idea to make a rough costing for each placement. The difference in cost may make the decision much easier.

7. Medical Electives Abroad - Travelling and Safety

Depending on where you are visiting and your personal interests, you might want to consider the ease and safety of travelling around the area that you are going to. This also loops back to the cost aspect as it would be important to factor this in.

Once you have narrowed down a list of choices, you should check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website to get travel advice for the countries that you have in mind, paying particular attention to the ‘Safety and Security’ section. At my medical school, we were not allowed to do our electives in countries that were deemed dangerous. The University also advised that we check this website regularly up to the date of our travel. This was because any changes to the safety level of the country that you’re travelling to meant that there is s possibility that the University will not grant permission to go.

My final tip is that you should try to finalise your location early and get your applications in as soon as possible, as there is a chance that your desired elective placement could be fully booked. This means you should remain flexible and get ideas for a backup placement.

Advice From Reddit

Alongside the 7 tips shared, we wanted to share some advice taken from the Reddit community, R/Medicalschool, within the thread "What to take as an elective". To share the approaches other people have taken to selecting their medical elective in the past.

To find out more opinions from the medical community, click this link!

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  • 26 Feb 2024
  • Medical School