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There are two places like home: The side effects of medical school abroad

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

“So, you studied abroad, but you’re from the UK. So, did you not get into medical school here? Like how does that work? It can’t be the same degree as the ones here in the UK right?” This was a question or rather a series of questions which I didn’t know how to process, let alone answer. Three degrees, many years of healthcare related experience and research projects later, it felt like I was back to square one. The new kid in class all over again. In my limited experience as an F1, fellow medics often can’t seem to get their heads around the fact I studied abroad, let alone their dismay at understanding why I would have wanted to in the first place.

On my first placement, I was nervous thinking I would never be as fluid or confident as my colleagues. The gap between me and them seemed substantial, and those first few weeks did little for my confidence in the medical education I had received abroad. I didn’t know the lingo, let alone the new systems which weren’t in place when I had left the UK all those years ago. The hospital environment was loud and chaotic, something which admittedly I had not been used to and there was so much paperwork! Slowly but surely however, the days turned into weeks and the weeks to months, and with time things started to get easier. Dare I say it, I found my feet, and in some cases I was advantaged having had trained abroad as being an outsider looking in afforded me a unique perspective to practicing medicine. Now I can confidently say it’s a level playing field, with the imposter syndrome having dissipated somewhat. There are three key things I have learnt since the start of F1 and they all seem to focus around my training abroad:

1. You are not the only one who doesn’t know the answer!

Despite popular opinion, medics never stop learning. And it doesn’t matter where you train, there is always going to be a time when you’re on ward round and your consultant asks you something which you have absolutely no clue about! It’s normal, you’re not alone, and as an F1 relying on your colleagues to help you out in sticky situations is something which you will become privy to irrespective of where you trained. Camaraderie trumps institution in my experience, and it helps to build lifelong friendships where you share a common goal of always helping each other in times of need.

2. Travel and experiencing a different culture is invaluable when it comes to patient contact

The most interesting side effect of having trained abroad is understanding people from different walks of life. My medical school was in the Mediterranean, so I understood the important cultural significance of family always being informed and around if possible. So when it came to my Healthcare of the Elderly placement, I was aware when we had a patient who was Greek admitted to the ward the family chat would have to be with the whole family as the patient wanted, and not one nominated NOK as was usual practice. I informed my consultant and we facilitated this via FaceTime with our patient’s whole family. Whilst this is not the norm, without that experience of having lived abroad I would have never thought to ask or check if this is what the patient wanted. So in moments like these I’m grateful for having exposure to a different culture whilst training.

3. Adaptability is your new best friend

Living abroad and adapting to a new culture, whilst trying to keep a float with medical school was something both me and my colleagues struggled with when we first started studying. It was only when I got to my final year I began to feel some degree of normality, that I was pulled out of one space (medical school) and thrown into another with entirely different expectations (foundation training). F1 has been a learning curve of epic proportions. A baptism of fire if you will, and I’ve noticed having being exposed to a different learning environment has afforded a degree of flexibilty when tackling problems, clinical or otherwise. Unlike my colleagues, the added challenge of learning medicine in a country other than the UK has made me think laterally when needed, and flexible to being more open to the unknown. And I entirely credit this to my time spent abroad.

Whilst studying abroad has had its challenges, it was tough in the beginning and easier as time wore on its had its benefits too. I’ve been exposed to a wide range of pathologies I would have never seen if I had stayed in the UK. Equally I’ve seen medicine practiced in an entirely different hospital culture, and that has been eye opening as I have seen clinical skills practiced differently, communication being directed alternatively because of a language barrier etc. It was confusing at times, and stressful much like F1, but I would not change it for the world. I would highly recommend to anyone who is considering medical school abroad to being more open to the possibility and experiencing a culture different from our own. Who knows you may end up loving it and staying put where you study! And honestly cocktails on the beach after clinic doesn’t sound too shabby if you ask me!


Author: Simi Singh

I am a Junior Doctor working in the South West with a particular interest in medical communication, medical writing and health literacy. I’m passionate about Global Health and using social media as a platform to give access to medical information and promoting mental health advocacy.

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