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How to Plan Your Medical Elective

2023 saw international medical electives make a comeback for Queen’s medics. Having just returned from her own, final year student Kathryn shares how she and friends planned 4 weeks at a hospital in Vietnam.

Group of medicine students on elective in Vietnam
At the end of a fantastic month of placement!

It’s one of the most exciting parts of medical school - eagerly anticipated by first to fourth years, and fondly remembered by doctors for decades - your final year elective: a 4-6 week medical placement of your choosing. It’s a concept I wasn’t familiar with before freshers week, but one I quickly came to think and dream about!

However, the pandemic put a pause on international travel for the medical cohorts 3 years above me, so when it came time to finally plan my own elective this year, it was hard to seek out advice on how to go about it all. Now that my friends and I have successfully finished up our amazing time away, I thought it would be helpful to create the guide I wish we had to help you plan yours!

Find out more about my medical elective in Vietnam

Step 1: What do you want?

The best place to begin with planning an elective is within yourself. There are 3 key questions to answer here - where do you want to go? Who do you want to go with? And what do you want to get out of it? As the elective is very self-directed, it’s up to you to decide what you want.

Consider if you’d like to stay in Northern Ireland for your placement or go further afield - there’s lots of good reasons to choose either. Cost plays a role, as well as how the elective fits into your life - are there things tying you to NI in the summer, such as weddings or family commitments? Or have you always wanted to travel?  I ultimately decided I wanted to use my elective period to experience life and medicine in a new country, and had the luxury of being able to save up for that. However, I wish I’d realised you could split the elective in half - many friends did some time in NI and some time abroad, and this is the best of both worlds.

Figuring out who you’d like to go with is another key point. My friends and I had been dreaming of going on elective together since the early days of first year, and thankfully we were all on board with the same general idea. Maybe you’d love to solo travel and meet new medics from around the world, or pick your travel buddies based on a particular area of medicine you all like. Again, there are plenty of options!

Group of students in Vietnam

My friends and I, all the way in Vietnam

Lastly, decide what you want from the placement. If you have a clear idea of what speciality you’d like to enter in the future, it’s a good idea to undertake part or all of your elective in that discipline - perhaps using the time to experience a sub-speciality or area that isn’t covered in our regular placement hours. If you’re wanting to explore a few different specialties you think you can see a career in, elective is a great time for that.

And if you’re uncertain, it’s a great chance to simply explore what healthcare looks like in a new context, and hone your skills in assessing, diagnosing and treating patients that you’ll use across any area of your future career.

By answering these three questions ourselves, we came up with the following plan - four weeks in Vietnam as a group of 5, in a hospital with a wide range of specialties so we could experience a mix of things we might be interested in, while experiencing healthcare in another country.

"I wish I’d realised you could split the elective in half - many friends did some time in NI and some time abroad, and this is the best of both worlds."

Step 2: How much do you want to plan?

Once you’ve got a plan, it’s time to decide how you want to go about making your elective dreams a reality. Remember, you’ll need to juggle planning elective alongside the busy days of fourth year - knowing what your plan is by October gives you plenty of time to put it into place.

Decide how much of the planning you want to do - some medics are more than happy to contact hospitals themselves and deal with all the small details, while I personally had no idea where to start - this led us to make the decision to use an elective company, so that someone else would take care of accommodation, hospital admin and be on hand to answer any questions!

Medicine student in Vietnam

The Queen's elective programme gave us great travel opportunities

Popular elective companies include Work the World, The Mighty Roar and Plan My Gap Year, and programmes are likely to book up by Christmas. Charities and mission organisations will also take on elective students, and provide support in planning your time with them.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking to apply to a specific hospitals programme, there may be a longer application process, so it’s worth starting your research early and giving yourself time to do any admin required. Electives within a healthcare trust in NI must be submitted by the end of January.

Step 3: Check it’s suitable

Queen’s outlines the learning outcomes for an elective placement in their study guides (it’s all on the medical portal); and while they are broad in encompassing the vast variety of elective experiences students have, it’s important to check your plan for placement will cover them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially if you’re using an elective company - if you’re planning to spend your summer doing something, make sure it’s the right decision.

Learning outcomes also give you a chance to frame your expectations and plan what you want to gain from the experience - ensuring you get the most out of your time.

Step 4: Funding

Working out how to fund your elective period was something I didn’t know anything about, and I still wouldn’t claim to be an expert! This can be less of a concern when staying close to home, but international travel bills can rack up quickly.

Aside from saving up money yourself, there are other sources of funding available - both Ulster Bank and the Bank of Ireland offer elective loans when you move your banking to them. As with any financial decision, you need to weigh up the pros and cons as well as consider interest rates - but many people choose this as the easiest way to live to the fullest when away.

Medicine student on medical elective

A medical student's dream!

Undertaking at least 4 weeks of activity abroad also qualifies you for Turing funding from the government, which offers some way to cut down your personal expense - this is received once you’ve already started your placement. There are also bursaries available through Queen’s which can be applied for during the year.

Step 5: Travel?

Your elective will take up 4-6 weeks of your summer…but that leaves the rest of it for you to play with. Have a think if you’d like to travel and when, as this can guide where in the elective period you want your placement to fall.

For those considering a placement in NI, it’s been common among our year group to go on holiday afterwards - some people even flying out to meet friends on their electives abroad. Meanwhile, if you’ve already flown across the world for placement, it can be cheaper to travel in the area. For us, this looked like 2 weeks in Thailand after our time in Vietnam, as flying between the two wasn’t very expensive - and I am so glad we did!

Travel gave us a chance to relax fully after a busy elective month and explore more of the beautiful countries we were in.

Huts in Vietnam

Give yourself time to explore

Step 6: Get booking

You’ve got your plan - it’s time to get booking! We booked our elective programme before Christmas and then our return flights at the start and end of our time away in January (booking return and a few months early meant a cheaper deal). During the rest of the term, we spaced out booking things like internal flights and accommodation for our time in Thailand. We also took care of practicalities like visas and Queen’s admin during this time.

Many groups in the year differed at this point - some waited until passing their exams to book a flight home in case a date change was needed, while others planned their travel much closer to the time of the trip - it’s all about what works for you.

Step 7: Enjoy!

With elective to look forward to, the rest of my fourth year flew by, and it was a powerful motivator for study once it got to exam time!

I have gained so much from my elective and am so grateful Queen’s can facilitate the chance to see healthcare in a different country as part of our degree - it’s definitely worth looking forward to, and you can catch more of my experience in the vlog here!

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Kathryn Allen

Medicine| Undergraduate Student | Lisburn, NI

I’m in my final year of Medicine at Queen's - I love my degree because it combines caring for people, learning fascinating things and working as a team. When I’m not busy surviving placement and exams, you can find me in one of Belfast’s great coffee shops with a friend, going to concerts to get my fix of live music, or curling up to read a book with a carefully curated Spotify playlist on in the background!

Kathryn Allen