by Work the World

Should you wish to combine travelling with education, there’s really no better alternative than an elective placement abroad. Having now arrived back home after 5 weeks in Ghana I admit that I’ve already started planning where to spend next summer. This may give you the impression that I’m an organized person. You’d be wrong. Impatient would probably be more accurate!

Travelling to other countries broadens horizons and experiencing new cultures, food, languages and climates all form a part of this. That sounds like a standard cliché. And it is, sorry. But as a student on a healthcare elective, you will gain a unique perspective of a country which many other tourists and travellers will never see.  It’s almost like an insider’s view of the country and you will learn things which the guidebooks will be ignorant of and see things which no documentary will show. Afternoons spent visiting a psychiatric hospital and hospital mortuary while in Ghana spring to mind. Countless issues will crop up while on placement that will give you a very real sense of the culture of the country. These may be attitudes to death and bereavement, mental health or the degree of poverty that people are contending with. Sometimes even simply listening to a patient’s history will reinforce in your mind how poor the people are. For example, while on the village placement in Ghana, a man arrived at the clinic early one morning after being bitten while he was hunting for rats and other bush meat. Again, it’s a little insight into daily life that most tourists wouldn’t have. I should probably say at this point that at no point in the village experience in Ghana will you be expected to hunt for your food. Or eat a rat for that matter.

From a medical perspective, you’ll come across a new spectrum of disease which will also be foreign to you. Not only that, but the approach to managing and treating familiar illnesses may well differ from what you’ve been taught at home. In that case, it’s probably best to respect it. Query the clinical basis of it by all means and ask questions but bear in mind that ultimately you’re a guest in their country! Many other aspects will also be different from the UK. For example, in Ghana, I found the doctor-patient relationship a lot less mutualistic and felt that patients often had quite a passive role. Again, being exposed to a foreign healthcare system will encourage you to look at the pros and cons of differing approaches and then form your own views and opinions on how things should be done. Ideas that you’ve previously held will be challenged and you’ll question why things are done the way they are.

It’s almost a fact of life that in developing countries you will have more opportunities to perform procedures or examine patients than back home. It’s a valuable experience but good to know your limitations at the same time! However should you want to explore a certain specialist field in greater depth or are looking for a very structured placement then bear in mind that a placement on home soil may be the better choice.

Whether taking histories from patients or being welcomed into a new community while on a village placement, there are many experiences from an elective that come together to form what will be your lasting impression of that country. But, in order to get the most benefit from it, definitely be proactive. Put yourself forward for things and volunteer for tasks. Above all else though, enjoy it!

This article was written by David Holmes, a Queen's University, Belfast student. David did a 5 week medicine placement in Takoradi, Ghana.

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