5 Elective Essentials
By Siân Maguire

Things to think about when planning your medical elective, by Dr Siân Maguire.

1.             What is your budget?

Okay, let’s get the worst part over and done with. Finances are no fun, but having a firm and realistic budget for elective is essential. If going abroad for elective is looking difficult financially, it is possible to apply for a bursary or grant – these are normally given if you are willing to do research in a particular area, but there are a variety of options available so have a look online or speak to your faculty to see if they can give you some useful contacts.

Another option, if your university allows it, is spend part of your elective in the UK and part abroad, which gives you the best of both worlds. A lot of my peers, myself included, took this option, and everyone felt that it worked well.

It can sometimes seem like there’s a lot of peer pressure to have a huge itinerary, exotic locations, and a multi-destination trip, but I think trying to cram the contents of an entire gap year into your elective can backfire financially and become exhausting. My advice would be to decide on the core things you want to do and focus on doing them well.

2.             Who do you want to travel with?

Although the next most obvious question would be ‘where do you want to go?’, I’d argue that considering who you want to travel with is more important because this will narrow down your options.

If you want to travel alone, certain parts of the world may not be suitable due to personal safety (your university may also have rules on this, so even if you are feeling bold, do check before you book anything).

If you want to go with a group of friends from your course, consider who will be going – does everyone have the same budget? Does everyone have similar aims and objectives? Are there any specific criteria that are essential for one of the members of your group? Also consider whether you’ll all get on for the duration of the trip, as you’ll be spending a lot of time in each other’s company. Much like when planning your budget, it’s better to establish these things before you start looking in order to avoid any conflicts or disappointments later on.

So, what if you don’t want to go alone, but your friends don’t want to do the same things as you? There are loads of companies offering organised elective trips where you go with students from different universities – make sure to do your research and read reviews because some companies are more reliable than others.

A friend and I decided to travel together for our elective, and we decided to travel to Nepal with a company called Work the World; everything to do with our trip was flawless from start to finish. In the months leading up to our departure there were scheduled phone calls and plenty of opportunities to ask questions, an online portal with information and updates, and the in-country team and support were fantastic. I’d highly recommend their Kathmandu programme, it was brilliant!

I think viewing elective purely as a holiday is a missed opportunity. Remember it’s up to you what department you will be based in, so pick something that genuinely interests you. If you do you go abroad, it is likely to be years before you have the opportunity to get involved in medicine in that setting again. Managing in an unfamiliar hospital environment is a great confidence builder, so as much as lounging in the sun all day might be tempting, I would really encourage getting stuck in.

3.             Insurance and Paperwork

Really not the most exciting part of planning elective but having the correct travel AND indemnity insurance is essential. Indemnity can be arranged through companies such as The Medical Defence Union. Your university may ask for proof of insurance so keep hold of your paperwork, and ideally take it with you when you travel in case your host hospital needs to see it.

When arranging travel insurance, read the small print - some policies specifically exclude certain activities like bungee jumping and rafting, so if you think you might be doing these kinds of things while you’re away do check you’re appropriately covered.

Also remember that you may need to get supervisor reports or similar signed at your host hospital to submit to your university, so make sure you know what’s expected of you, or you’ll end up chasing forms from the other side of the world.

4.             Your Own Health

You’re going on elective to get involved in the healthcare of others, but make sure you look after yourself too.

Speak to your GP or travel clinic well in advance of your trip to make sure you have all of the relevant vaccinations, and make sure you have any medications you might need. This will vary depending on where you are going, but consider taking painkillers, antibiotics, anti-diarrhoeals, oral rehydration solution, antacids, and potentially things like anti-malarials, altitude sickness medications, and anti-retrovirals for in the event of a needlestick injury. And don’t forget your own prescriptions!

Look after your mental health too – I had an absolutely amazing time on elective, but even good trips have tough moments. If you can, try and make time to check in with family and friends back home, and talk to people around you if you’ve had a rough day. Some of my friends went home from their electives earlier than originally planned, and this is okay – not everything works out the way you expect and travelling off the beaten track can be a bit of a gamble. Long bus journeys, overbooked flights, language barriers and all the other challenges affect everyone to some degree, so don’t beat yourself up. If you have times that aren’t so fun, it’s all part of the journey.

To summarise…

My trip to Nepal was an incredible experience and a brilliant end to medical school. I will be forever thankful to the patients and staff who I worked alongside at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital and the health post, as well as everyone else, including the Work the World staff, who made the trip possible. I’d wholeheartedly recommend visiting Nepal if you get the chance to, and the peace of mind that having the right clothing and kit gives you is invaluable - thanks to Rohan I had exactly what I needed.