Beyond ‘health and safety’ – the challenges facing students asked to work outside of their comfort, qualification level or expertise on medical elective placement

Connie Wiskin, Jonathan Dowell, Catherine Hale

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)
157 Downloads (Pure)


On elective students may not always be clear about safeguarding themselves and others. It is important that placements are safe, and ethically grounded. A concern for medical schools is equipping their students for exposure to and response to uncomfortable and/or unfamiliar requests in locations away from home, where their comfort and safety, or that of the patient, may be compromised. This can require legal, ethical, and/or moral reasoning on the part of the student. The goal of this article is to establish what students actually encounter on elective, to inform better preparing students for safe and ethical medical placements. We discuss the implications of our findings, which are arguably applicable to other areas of graduate training, e.g. first medical roles post-qualification.

An anonymised survey exploring clinical and ethical dilemmas on elective was issued across 3 years of returning final year elective medical students. Questions included the prevalence and type of potentially unsafe scenarios encountered, barriers to saying ‘no’ in unsafe situations, perceived differences between resource poor and developed world settings and the degree to which students refused or consented to participation in events outside of the ‘norms’ of their own training experience.

Three hundred seventy-nine students participated. 45% were asked to do something “not permissible” at home. 27% were asked to do something they felt “uncomfortable” with, often an invasive clinical task. Half asked to do something not usually permissible were “comfortable”. 48% felt it more acceptable to bypass guidelines in developing settings. 27% refused an offer outside their experience.

Of interest are reasons for “going along with” uncomfortable invitations, e.g. “emergency”, self-belief in ‘capability’ and being ‘more qualified’ than host-personnel. This “best pair of hands available” merits scrutiny. Adverse scenarios were not exclusive to developing settings. We discuss preparing students for decision-making in new contexts, and address whether ‘home’ processes are too inflexible to prepare students for ‘real’ medical life? Ethical decision-making and communicating reluctance should be included in elective preparation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number74
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jul 2018


  • Electives
  • International
  • ethics
  • safety
  • students
  • evaluations
  • supervision
  • limitations


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