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7 December 2012
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TSNews December 2012: Medical Electives - What's the point?

Used as an excuse by some medical students to spend six weeks in a hot country, medical electives provide invaluable clinical experiences for the majority of those who partake in them. However the attitude towards the purpose of the elective period is changing: Traditionally the elective period provides clinical experiences and opportunities to medical students, but there is a new breed of medical elective where the focus is on other important areas of relevance to future practitioners such as medical leadership and management.

An example of one of these modern electives is the McKinsey medical students elective that, according to their website[1], gives successful applicants “the unique opportunity to work on a healthcare-related project within one of its consultancy teams” with the aim of promoting “a better understanding of the challenges faced by continuously improving healthcare systems amongst future doctors”.

The importance of medical leadership in providing high quality services to patients cannot be underestimated. The existence of the recently formed Faculty of Medical Leadership and Management provides evidence enough of the central role healthcare-professional led service provision plays, and will continue to play, in the shaping of healthcare systems. An elective such as this is able to provide medical students with a unique perspective on the vital role that healthcare systems play in society, and the role of practitioners in advancing that system for the benefit of patients. The fact that private companies are willing to provide such a unique and exciting experience to medical students should be welcomed and not frowned upon by our academic institutions and applications from potential future healthcare leaders encouraged, not actively discouraged.

However there are some medical schools that do not accept these types of new medical electives onto their approved list of placements. The McKinsey placement claims to be intended for “exceptional” students and there is an acceptance rate of one in four following an interview (only offered following a scrupulous analysis of the curriculum vitae from many applicants).

It may be argued that if medical schools do not allow their students to avail of such unique opportunities and fail to embrace the changing tide with regards to the purpose of medical electives they are disappointing their students. They are not allowing their students to even apply to be “exceptional” and, some would argue, are failing the Health Service and their students’ future patients by not allowing them to avail of, and later apply, the skills and knowledge they could gain from the private sector on a placement such as this. Exceptional clinical outcomes do not have to be the result of directly practicing clinical skills on the ward or sunbathing in Hawaii.

The management and manipulation of healthcare systems from a higher level than that of the doctor on the ward is key to the sustainable future of healthcare systems throughout the world. Medical schools must acknowledge the importance of medical leadership and management in this and ensure that their students are given every opportunity.


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