Articles and Case Studies

Returning Home From Elective - Not the End of Your Journey

20 Mar 2015

Marika Davies

by Marika Davies

No matter where you undertake your elective, when it comes to an end and you return to your normal routine, there will be many demands on your time and attention. However, to get the most out of your elective experience, you should take the time to reflect on what you’ve experienced and learnt.

Plan time for rest and reflection

Take a break after your elective if you can. Plan your elective itinerary with this in mind.

Share your experiences

One of the most useful things you can do after completing your elective is to write an account for other students to read. Many medical schools require an elective report as part of your assessment. Try to make your report as useful to future students as possible. Do not exaggerate your experience and always ask permission of your hosts before posting their contact details.

Your elective report should include the following:

  • a description of your role and responsibilities
  • your expectations versus the reality
  • what went wrong and why
  • highlights, challenges and disappointments
  • ideas on how future students can effectively contribute
  • specifics regarding living conditions and travel arrangements

Keep in touch

Send a thank you letter or email to your hosts and supervisor. If you had to travel, let them know you’ve returned home safely.

Think of ways you could help your hosts attract or prepare future students wanting a similar elective. For example, you could offer to prepare a list of required skills that your hosts could send to prospective students.

Expect some reverse culture shock

If you completed an elective in another country, you may experience many feelings and emotions that you never expected on your return home. If you’re returning from a placement in a disadvantaged area, you may feel:

  • that you would rather be back overseas
  • that nobody else understands what you were doing
  • that you want to help change the world
  • pride at having participated in such an elective
  • guilt about your lifestyle
  • sadness as 
you reminisce about what you now miss.

Many students experience reverse culture shock when they return home – this is perfectly normal!

Let your family and close friends know that you may have changed while on elective. Ask them to listen to your stories and be there for you. It may be hard for them as they may find it impossible to relate to your experiences, especially if you witnessed traumatic or distressing events.

Take advantage of debriefing opportunities

Some universities provide formal debriefing sessions for medical students returning from their elective. If not, all universities provide access to free counselling.

Counselling can help you explore your thoughts and feelings, and teach you coping techniques that may help now and on future placements. Talking about your experiences may help you reflect on your elective and, if necessary, provide a sense of closure, reduce feelings of isolation and improve readjustment into your “old life”.

Also talk to other medical students who’ve returned from their electives. Talking with others who’ve been through similar experiences can be therapeutic and reassuring.

Journal your thoughts

Keeping a private journal can be a way of giving your feelings an outlet, allowing you to write down anything you want.

Seek help if you need it

If you experience symptoms such as poor sleep or anxiety, see your doctor. Be aware of the dangers of self-medication.

Do something positive

Although your elective journey has come to an end, your career in medicine is just beginning. Your elective may have inspired you to take a greater interest in global health issues. If you feel passionately about a particular issue, educate yourself and others about it.

Most medical schools in Australia have a not-for-profit global health student group. These groups provide education, advocacy, medical aid and infrastructure development to partner organisations in selected developing nations. Several groups now oversee large-scale medical aid projects and others coordinate in-country volunteer placements for medical students. There are countless opportunities to get involved. Contact your medical school’s global health student group for more information.

Therese Chapman
Medical Writer for MDA National Education Services

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