Is medical Erasmus misguided?
It has always been harder to justify an Erasmus placement (a European student exchange) for medical students compared with other degree courses. These exchanges make sense in courses that intuitively lend themselves to time abroad, in which arts and foreign language courses feature heavily. But, with no obvious benefits to be gleaned from studying in a hospital that happens to be in an iconic European city, medicine lacks a clear objective in its Erasmus mission statement.
When I left for my placement in Rome, everyone I spoke to was keen to expand on the social and cultural rather than academic benefits. As someone for whom international medicine holds no long term interest, you might ask why this imbalance mattered. Working abroad seemed like something that I’d do once during my elective, then leave in the “No” pile of potential careers, along with emergency medicine (too scary) and pathology (not scary enough). But in a medical profession where getting a choice job is increasingly about how much you put into (and get out of) your university studies, I believe Erasmus is a choice not to be made lightly.
The greatest of the problems faced is confusion over the primary aim. It’s easy to use phrases like “working internationally” or “experiencing another culture,” but I believe these statements are misguided in medical Erasmus. Opportunities in international medicine are limited by the scope of Erasmus, which covers exclusively modern, European hospitals and therefore exclusively modern, European diseases. Indeed the biggest “international difference” is that anything learnt is only inconsistently useful back home. Protocols and guidelines will differ, and even drug names, which I’d always assumed are standardised, may be unrecognisable. It’s hardly surprising that my knowledge of pharmacology took a hit when even a prescription for “tachipirina” (paracetomol) was beyond me. As for cultural benefits, I’d argue that a course where every module could one day be important in the care of a patient is not the time to prioritise time soaking up the atmosphere in a foreign city.
I came out of Erasmus with some new friends, language skills I’m proud of, and a taste for life in the Eternal City. I also had an exercise book full of half finished bilingual notes and a long list of catch-up work. Shorter hours and a relative lack of responsibility meant I fell behind. Perhaps not enough to worry about on results day, but I certainly notice the gap in skills between myself and my peers whenever I’m asked to site a cannula or list causes of postpartum haemorrhage.
In the end it must be the student’s choice whether the “experience for education” trade-off of Erasmus is worth it. Talking to students who have done it is the best way to gauge how large that trade-off will be; countries differ in their medical education. But for anyone thinking of a career heavily featuring a subject taken abroad, I don’t think any amount of post-Erasmus cramming is a substitute for clinical exposure. Yes, it was a unique and unforgettable experience. It’s just unfortunate that this experience had little to do with the study of medicine.Sarah Rollason, medical student
1University of Cardiff, Wales
Correspondence to: email@example.com
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f4070