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Volunteer Overseas

Interview With Former Elective Students


October 12th, 2016Travel, Volunteering, Careers
By Hannah Atkins

Project Abroad medical volunteers assisting in the neurosurgery department in Hanoi, Vietnam

So you’ve decided to take your Medical Elective abroad - but would like to know more about what it involves. To set your minds at ease, I spoke to Samuel and David, who both recently returned from their Elective placements in Kenya and Mexico respectively. In this interview, they share some advice for future students and talk about the highlights of their experience overseas.

Why did you choose to do your Elective abroad?

Samuel: The main reason was to experience healthcare in a completely different setting. In particular, I was keen to experience healthcare in an area which does not benefit from the same resources as we do at home. Travelling to a new country to experience new cultures and sights outside of medicine was also a strong appeal.

David: For me it was to experience the difference in the healthcare system and culture of Mexico, as well as learning how to speak a new language.

What specifically drew you to your chosen country?

Samuel: I have always wanted to visit Kenya and experience Kenyan culture. Safari was also a strong appeal.

David: I think the fact that I had learnt Spanish in school and wanted to polish it. The best way to effectively learn a language is to visit and stay in that country for a period of time. I would also like to pursue a career in surgery and on the website, Projects Abroad said that they offered surgical placements in Mexico.

What did you get out of the experience?

Samuel: I completed my Elective in paediatrics so learnt a lot around that particular specialty. I was also able to compare and contrast the healthcare we enjoy back at home compared to that in Kenya, as well as see diseases I would never see at home.

David: The best part was that I was taught how to suture properly and got to perform on the patient under supervision. I also enjoyed being able to practice my hands-on clinical work and learning Spanish.

What were the most noticeable differences between what you saw in terms of healthcare in Kenya/Mexico compared to the UK?

Samuel: Most differences were underpinned by a lack of resources. Patients did not have the wealth to pay for the full range of tests and treatments for their children (although some investigations and treatments – e.g. for HIV – were funded by the government). There was also a severe shortage of staff on the wards, particularly doctors – there were only a few senior doctors. As previously mentioned, the diseases I saw in Kenya varied greatly to what I would see at home.

David: Medical students in Mexico were taught surgical instrument handling whereas in UK this is done by specialised nurse. For each speciality, Mexico has one team, hence the ward is very big, whereas in the UK different patients are assigned to different teams and so the ward is smaller. Mexico also seems to have more bed spaces and most of the patients arrange consultation via physical queuing whereas in UK consultation is arranged via telephone/online appointment.

What advice would you give to students considering a similar trip for their Elective placement?

Samuel: Make sure to get involved and don’t be afraid to ask plenty of questions. Also ensure you have the relevant travel vaccinations/medications sorted before you leave.

David: Learn some Spanish! There is no point when the doctors have given you the opportunity to do things, but you don’t understand the instructions or what the patient says.

Be proactive - I know everyone says this! Each doctor in Mexico is different - they don’t have lesson plans for you, but most of them are very friendly and willing to teach and help if you have any questions or you would like to learn something.

Finally, ask if they can teach you clinical skills which you can practice on a patient under supervision. This is valuable experience if you are in your pre-clinical year.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Samuel: A specific appeal for choosing to go with Projects Abroad was the 1 Week Conservation Add-On at the end of my six week placement. This was a very enjoyable week in Nakuru, learning and participating in conservation efforts.

David: Enjoy yourself and seek every opportunity. Make sure you have a diary or log book to write down everything you see and experience, or even to look up some of the medical conditions. Most importantly, reflect on what you learn about yourself, and your strengths and weakness.


We offer six different types of Elective placements in a number of developing countries around the world! The next step is to pick the option relevant to your studies, and then a destination that suits your interests. Each project has something different to offer in terms of specialisms and the type of work you will be observing. Not sure what to choose? Feel free to contact us, and we can talk you through your options.

Did you take your Elective abroad? Share your experience and advice in the comments section below!

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