A qualitative study of medical students’ experiences of international health electives to developing countries

O'Donnell, Patrick and O‘Donovan, Diarmuid (2014) A qualitative study of medical students’ experiences of international health electives to developing countries. In: Association for Medical Education in Europe (AMEE), Excellence in Education - the 21st Century Teacher, 30 August - 3 September 2014, Milan, Italy.


Introduction : Every year thousands of medical students worldwide embark on international health electives (IHEs) to broaden their experience of medicine in the developing world. While there is much commentary and opinion reported in the extant literature on IHEs, there is a dearth of empirical research that explores the experience and the value of these IHEs to medical students. Most students who participate in these IHEs in Ireland are members of medical student IHE societies. There are varying levels of interaction between students and their medical schools when planning and carrying out these experiences. This study aims to explore the experiences of a sample of medical students who completed IHEs in developing countries in 2012. Methods: For this qualitative study students were recruited using online notice-boards of medical student societies. Purposive and snowball sampling were used to find students from different medical schools in Ireland, as the arrangements for IHEs in each location differ greatly. Sampling also sought to include students who had travelled with medical student IHE societies and others who had travelled independently. Anonymised, one-on-one interviews were then conducted with participants. These were then transcribed and analysed thematically. Interviews were conducted until saturation was reached. Results: There were twenty responses to the online study advertisement, thirteen of these were selected for interview. One participant was added by snowball sampling. Five of the six medical schools in the country had representation in the study. The main themes identified were the perceived benefits of IHEs, difficulties with the distribution of charitable donations, the emotional impact on students, awareness of scope of practice, and issues with the current structure of IHEs. Discussion and Conclusions: The informal relationship that currently exists between student societies and the medical schools results in many uncertainties around the conduct of IHEs. The issues of accountability and lack of supports for students are very important. Clearer guidelines and identification of learning outcomes for students would be helpful. The findings on charitable donations were not previously reported in the literature. This study is relevant to medical schools and medical students internationally

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