An elective is a placement undertaken as part of a medical degree. The content and setting of the placement are largely decided by the student undertaking it, hence the name.
Elective placements are not exclusive to medical degrees; many other degree programmes within the field of healthcare also incorporate electives (such as nursing, dentistry and physiotherapy) and the format is often the same, but they are not discussed in detail here.
An elective represents a unique opportunity for medical students, allowing them to experience healthcare in a setting unfamiliar to that in which they are accustomed to studying, and also provides the opportunity for medical students to develop their skills by observing and participating in healthcare overseas. Classically, students embark on elective placements abroad, often in the developing world, or other countries where scientific, social, economic or cultural standards differ from those found in the country where the student's medical school is situated. However, as electives can be expensive, some students opt for elective placements in the same country as their university.
Aside from providing experience of differing practices, electives also allow students to encounter medical conditions they are less used to seeing at home. In addition, students often retrospectively describe how their placements broadened their horizons with regards to the social issues affecting healthcare in developing countries.
An elective is usually undertaken in the penultimate or final year of study of a medical degree, often after students have finished their final exams. The university usually specifies the dates during which an elective can be undertaken by students.
Electives can be entirely self-arranged, but this can be complicated, as it requires the student to organise travel, accommodation, the placement itself, and other legalities such as travel insurance and indemnity cover themselves. Because of this, many students recruit the services of companies which specialise in organising medical electives and will take care of most of the arrangements for the placement. Students often share their experiences on the internet, and good placements become well-known. Popular destinations fill up as much as 12 months in advance, and as such students will often make bookings with elective companies up to 18 months before the start date of their placement.
Medical electives can be extremely expensive, with the overall cost often running into thousands of pounds. Most students fund their electives personally, but financial help is occasionally available in the forms of bursaries, prizes or scholarships, either from the student's university or from societies or private companies. In these cases, the sponsor will typically require that the student undertakes some form of project whilst on their elective to justify the expense.
Requirements of students vary from medical school to medical school. Some (such as Aberdeen) require students to submit a written project as part of their placement, whereas other institutions utilise few formal assessments.
In terms of conduct whilst on the placement, students are expected to behave as they would in their home institution. It is illegal for unregistered medical students to act as doctors, despite the fact that their level of skill and expertise is often comparable to the professionals they will work with on the placement. Notably, students are still subject to all the ethical and professional requirements they would be at their home institution, such as the GMC's requirement that students in the United Kingdom "recognise and work within the limits of their competence".