Background: Irish medical students have a long and proud history of embarking on international health electives (IHEs) to broaden their experience in the developing world. Although there are many opinions in the literature about IHEs, there is a dearth of empirical research that explores the experience and the value of these experiences to medical students. Most students who participate in these IHEs from Irish medical schools are members of student IHE societies, which are entirely run by students themselves. There are varying levels of preparation and interaction with the medical schools in planning these experiences. This study explores the experiences of a sample of students who completed IHEs in 2012.
Methods: This qualitative study used anonymized one-on-one interviews with medical students in Irish medical schools who completed IHEs to developing countries in 2012. Students were recruited using online noticeboards of student societies and e-mail. Purposive sampling was used to find students from different medical schools, some who had travelled with medical student IHE societies and others who had travelled independently. Seven male and seven female students participated. Interviews were conducted until saturation was reached. Data were then analyzed thematically.
Results: The main themes identified were the perceived benefits of IHEs, the difficulties experienced with the distribution of charitable donations, the emotional impact on the students of participating in the IHEs, awareness of scope of practice by students, and issues with the current structure of IHEs.
Conclusions: The informal relationship that currently exists between student societies and the medical schools results in poor accountability and reporting requirements on IHEs. Clearer guidelines and identification of learning outcomes for students would be helpful. The findings are relevant to medical students internationally.