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Adventures Await--A Simple Guide to Medical Electives Abroad

Many medical students entertain the idea of doing an elective abroad, but many never actually make it to the airport. In order to turn a great possibility into a reality, I will offer some answers to the basic questions that surround international medical electives.

Why Should I Go?

Medical students pursue international rotations for a variety of reasons. Some want to learn a foreign language, some want to try out a totally different practice environment, and some are looking for a way to travel to a country they have always dreamed of visiting while still earning credit towards their degree. Whatever your reason, there are opportunities available for you! Many students return from their rotations abroad re-inspired about medicine and healthcare, and some may even return to those countries as volunteer physicians in the future. Rotations in rural areas and different climates also allow students to witness pathology they may not encounter very often at home, giving their medical education a greater breadth. Practicing in a different healthcare system can also give students insight into how to improve care in the United States, as well as open their eyes to healthcare needs around the world.

Who Should Go?

You! Any medical student can go abroad for an elective, and opportunities abound. Don't let your language abilities (or lack thereof) hold you back, because there are plenty of opportunities in English-speaking countries. You could be even more adventurous and include language learning in your experience!

When Should I Go?

Pick a time, most likely during your fourth year, when you do not need to be in the States. Most important is to take residency interviewing into consideration. Many students choose to go in October, since applications should be in and interviews haven't yet gotten into full swing. Many others wait until February, once interviews are over, or even April, when the Match is finished. Most rotations operate on a monthly basis, so look at your schedule and pick a good month for you. You will also want to take the climate of the country you are traveling to into consideration. Doing a rotation in a tropical locale during monsoon season may be less than enjoyable!

Where Should I Go?

Location, location, location! Your experience abroad will undoubtedly be shaped by your choice of destination. Maybe you want to experience healthcare in a country with a national socialized system like England or Canada, or you would rather work in a clinic in a small African village. Most international university medical schools offer elective credit for away rotations. Don't be afraid to organize your own experience. Maybe a doctor you have worked with at home regularly volunteers abroad. Try to arrange elective credit to join his group on their next trip. Also, if you choose to go to a country whose language you do not speak, be sure to inquire about the availability of translators. Better yet, take a language course before you go and/or during the elective. The possibilities are endless!

How Can I Go?

This is the part that most students let get in the way of going abroad: money. Travel is not cheap, and many elective programs charge a fee that is not covered by your medical school tuition. You should also take cost into consideration when choosing a destination. Countries in the developing world will be much cheaper to live, eat, and travel in than European countries.

So, be creative about finances. Many medical schools have travel scholarships for research abroad, so think about incorporating a research project into your elective. For example, a student at my school is currently in Nepal doing research on altitude sickness awareness and preparedness at the Mt. Everest base camp. Simple projects that can be completed in a few weeks, such as surveys or health education project development, are often well suited to an elective abroad. In addition, fellowships exist for international health work that various organizations offer. Often, these may require a multiple-month stay, but your travel expenses are usually covered. For airfare, try to use frequent flyer miles or find cheap off-season flights, one of the benefits of traveling during the school year. Another way to subsidize your trip is to sublet your apartment for the month you are away to another student coming to do a visiting elective at your school. If you are committed to going, there are always ways to find the finances.

So, I've Decided to Go . . .

Here are some great web resources to begin your search.

Ashley Starkweather, Pacific Region
University of Southern California School of Medicine, 2007
E-mail: starkwea@usc.edu

Back to November 2005 Issue of IMpact

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