When planning your elective it is easy to get swept up in the excitement of foreign travel; the anticipation of new experiences, new friends, new tastes, smells and sights. Amongst all this it can be easy to forget the real reason that you are going on your elective in the first place.
It can also be difficult to visualise the impact that your elective will have on the rest of your career, particularly if, like me, your elective comes relatively early on in your medical school career.
It wasn’t until a year or so after I got back, when I sat down to think about the MTAS form and FY1 postings, that I really thought through what my experiences in Tanzania had taught me, how this might affect my future practice and how this might benefit my career.
I went to Tanzania with WTW and did 2 weeks of Paediatrics and 2 weeks of Obstetrics in Tanzania. I had a wonderful time; I got some real hands-on experience, made some great friends and saw some of the weird and wonderful things that you only ever see in textbooks! I spent large amounts of time on the wards, witnessing the multidisciplinary team at work and was able to really participate in some of the discussions about the patients. Despite only being a 2nd year medic at the time, my experience in other fields, such as nutrition, was valued and I was asked questions as an equal, not as a student. This really boosted my confidence and helped me to feel like I was a valuable member of the team. This sense of inclusion is not always present back on the busy wards of UK hospitals, with many medical students feeling ignored or like they are in the way. I hope my experiences in Tanzania, where all levels of experience are valued, will help me to encourage my juniors to feel like they are valued too, helping them to become confident and assured and to treat their colleagues in the same way.
As well as a lesson in team work, my elective taught me the importance of the basic principles of medicine. In the UK we are lucky enough to have access to the best equipment and most sophisticated tests to help us diagnose and treat our patients. In the developing world, where these tests are not readily available, healthcare professionals must rely on the basic principles of their medical training to enable them to best diagnose and treat their patients. Their skill in examination reduces the need for expensive (and inaccessible) imaging, saving both time and money, both of which can then be reinvested to treat more people. In the UK, scanning and imaging has become a mainstay of diagnosis, sometimes to the detriment of our examination skills. As healthcare budgets in the UK become more and more stretched, it is the responsibility of all healthcare professionals to limit unnecessary spending where possible and, I believe, a return to first principles of examination can help us to achieve this. My elective helped me to realise the importance of the basics, and also the importance of being responsible in the way I handle healthcare budgets for the benefit of all patients.
Although it may be difficult to see at the time, doing an elective abroad can impact upon your future practice as a healthcare worker. Aside from making you a better, more responsible and more confident practitioner, this can also make you more employable in the future.
Written by Catherine Napper, medical student at the University of Southampton