How to get the most out of your clinical electives

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Electives are fast becoming a fundamental part of medical education and a priceless addition to the CVs and portfolios of healthcare professionals. The average medical student goes on two to three electives during their undergraduate training.

Well-curated electives have learning objectives aimed at ensuring you build up your clinical knowledge, however it is fairly easy to leave an elective feeling unfulfilled, with some of these objectives unmet, if your cards aren’t played right.

Here are a few tips and tricks to ensure you get the very best out of your upcoming electives.

Have a goal in mind

Before you get on the plane, have a list of the things you want to see and do during your electives. It doesn’t have to be a comprehensive list as you’ll most definitely end up updating it after the first few days of your elective programme. The issue with not setting goals for your elective is that you could end up following hospital teams around passively without actually learning much. But when you have an idea of what you want to spend your precious time doing and learning about, with the help of your colleagues at your host hospital, you’ll be able structure your days to suit your learning objectives.

Ask questions

Just by the virtue of being in a foreign country, you’re bound to see and hear things that will be somewhat unfamiliar to you. Don’t be afraid to ask questions whenever you’re lost or simply curious about anything. From personal experience, the host medics are very welcoming to questions and will more willing to guide you considering they’ve perceived your willingness to learn.

Have homework

Medicine is humongous and so you’ll most definitely see or hear about diseases you won’t know much about. Set aside time each evening, after dinner to go over two to three conditions with your colleagues. You could go the extra mile by asking a host medic at the hospital to give you homework that they’ll quiz you on the next day.

Read up on the next day’s surgical procedures

This is similar to the homework tip. Operating theatres usually have lists of surgeries that will be performed the next day latest by the previous afternoon. Make it your business to have a look at this list to get an idea of what surgeries you’ll be observing or even better, scrubbing into the next day. If you have time, read up on the patients’ diagnosis and the specific procedures. If possible, watch YouTube videos about the procedures. Doing this will ensure you have the most fulfilling theatre days.

Be punctual

Don’t be that medic that’s always showing up late, it’s not a good look. It might rub off on people the wrong way considering cultural differences. Some people perceive  lateness as a lack of seriousness, some as disinterest, and some as just plane disrespectful.

Don’t be a show off

Don’t be that medic that always feels the need to interrupt and “correct” the host medics. There’s nothing wrong with correcting anyone but the approach is what makes the big difference. Shouting out a medic’s error carelessly in the middle of clinical activities isn’t the best, but meeting them after the day’s work and speaking politely is better. Try not to be derogatory towards your colleagues at the host hospitals and you’ll have the best learning experience.

Learn the basics of the language

If you’re heading to Kenya for instance, learn the Swahili version of the simple words like “hello”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, “i’m sorry”, “how are you”. It’ll go a long way in helping communicate with the patients and the medics at your destination. No one will expect you to be a language guru but people will appreciate your efforts.

Never miss an opportunity to learn more about the cultures

Yes you’re there for the clinical experience but don’t forget it’s also important to immerse yourself in the culture. You’ll have a more fulfilling experience if you make out time for non-clinical activities. Learn about the cultures of your patients and see how they compare to yours.  

Have a positive outlook

Be positive at all times. Don’t be a Julie downer or that one medic that’s constantly complaining about one thing or the other. You’ll be away from home so you can’t expect to be home when you’re not home. Make up your mind to have an open mind and enjoy your time there no matter what.

Book your elective with a reputable company

There’s a peace of mind that comes with knowing the logistics of your entire trip has already been taken care of, leaving you to focus on what’s more important. You’re going to a foreign country and the last thing you want is to be hassled about missing airport shuttles, unsuitable accommodation, or a lack of on-site security. Ensure your electives are taken care of by a company you can trust.

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Dr Wendy Evans-Uhegbu

The author Dr Wendy Evans-Uhegbu

Dr. Wendy Evans-Uhegbu is a graduate of The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, with experience in Connected Health, Medical Technology, Clinical Research, Medical Education, Medical Communications, and Web Design/Development. She is a part of the Medics Abroad team with the role of Chief Communications Officer. She is also a Medical Writer at 3D4 Medical and runs a Medical Communications and Children's books company (ODR Integrated Services/ ODR Books).  She is the author of the newly published children's book series "The Things Around Me".

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