Context: Electives commonly represent a valued, enjoyed and formative part of medical training. However, there is little empirical evidence about students' preparedness, practices and perceptions of medical electives in resource-poor settings. Exploring what students do, why and under what circumstances is therefore worthwhile.
Objectives: This study aimed to evaluate students' views on the processes, outcomes and impacts of medical electives in three low-income countries.
Methods: A qualitative study using purposeful sampling and semi-structured interviews was conducted. Participants were 29 Western students on medical electives at seven host sites in sub-Saharan Africa. A framework approach was used to analyse 872minutes of audio-recorded data.
Results: Students were highly positive about their experiences and seemed aware of their clinical limitations. Pre-departure training offered by some institutions was beneficial, but the content was perceived to be of little clinical relevance. Language barriers were the main challenges faced by students, even in places where English was the second language. Students who stayed longer, were nearer qualification or were based in rural units (rather than teaching centres) contributed more to patient care. Supervision was considered adequate but this appeared to be judged in a local context. Deliberate inappropriate practice was not encountered, but on occasion misunderstanding arose over the student's status.
Conclusions: Students who undertake electives in resource-poor countries appear to have clearly thought out and positive intentions, but current systems cause concern with reference to student activities and staff time, and require improvement. Instead of focusing on education benefits alone, students (and their sending institutions) need to consider other approaches through which host communities can more clearly benefit. Effective pre-departure preparation should become a requirement.