Is it worth doing a medical course abroad?

Authors: Alison Carter 

Publication date:  16 Jan 2014

With many medical courses now internationally standardised, some doctors are looking at the feasibility of going abroad for educational opportunities. Alison Carter looks at the potential advantages of this approach

Continuing professional development is vital at all stages of a medical career. In the later stages of training and throughout consultant work, learning continues as well as revalidation of core skills until retirement. Although most doctors complete courses in the United Kingdom, many courses are now internationally standardised, and some doctors are seeking out educational opportunities abroad.

Many courses that are compulsory for doctors in the United Kingdom are part of a wider international network. One example is the advanced trauma life support (ATLS) course, which is undertaken by all UK surgical, anaesthetic, and emergency medicine doctors. The American College of Surgeons acts as the parent provider for this course, and licences are purchased from satellite institutions to run the course and gain the course material. The content is standardised, and participants sit similar exams and scenarios and reach an equal level of competency using the same assessment and treatment algorithms, whether they are taking the course in the United Kingdom or abroad.

It can be difficult to gain a place on a course in the United Kingdom. It is common to apply for several ATLS courses, only to be told that no places are available or that priority is given to the provider institution’s own trainees and consultants. As completing the ATLS course is a requirement for many registrar training programmes, not to mention essential to providing the best patient care in many specialties, failure to attend an ATLS course can render a doctor unable to apply for higher medical training and lacking skills in fundamental areas.

Going abroad to attend a course can negate the stumbling block of waiting lists. It can also give greater flexibility around dates. Medical courses abroad are sometimes cheaper than those in the United Kingdom. In some countries, such as the United States, the courses often have more sponsorship from outside companies. Although for some the ethics of such sponsorship are debatable, it does lower the cost for the delegate.

If we take the example of the ATLS course, in the United Kingdom, the price begins at around £600 but can be higher, depending on the centre hosting it. In New York, ATLS courses are advertised at £450, while in Cape Town the price is £550.

Although courses abroad have an additional cost of air fares and accommodation, often these are encountered on courses within the United Kingdom. Travel in the United Kingdom might not be as expensive as an international air fare, but hotel costs will often be comparable.

Going abroad may enable you to select centres of excellence in your field, and consequently you are likely to be taught by world experts who will not only deliver great teaching but also inspire you in your future training. Most courses include varying amounts of networking between fellow delegates and the faculty. This can result in good opportunities to make contacts and visit institutions where you might want to apply for a fellowship. You can introduce yourself to potential supervisors, look around the department, and discuss the training and research opportunities available with local doctors before formally applying.

Going abroad for a course also provides experiences of new places. Time-off for the course may be taken as study leave, as it is comparable to attending a course in the United Kingdom. Time taken and the cost of travel would be at the discretion of your institution. Going abroad opens up opportunities to incorporate annual leave into your travelling period, which may result in a more economical use of leave. It also can be fun for partners, children, or friends to go too and to make a holiday of the trip.

Some courses offer social programmes, with the teaching hours being moved in the day to allow recreation. An example is the AOTrauma course, an internationally standardised course for orthopaedic trainees worldwide. Within the United Kingdom, the course can be completed in Leeds for £995. The same course runs on Marco Island, Florida, for £590, where afternoons are set aside for exploring the beach resort and surrounding areas, although the course is two days longer. It is also run in Davos, Switzerland, for £1180, where skiing is available alongside the educational programme.

Only a few examples have been used here, but there are many courses in each subspecialty that allow similar experiences. Going abroad for a course can not only result in savings in registration costs, it can also facilitate fellowship networking and allow some often much needed relaxation time.

Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: None.

Alison Carter core trainee year 2 Northwick Park Hospital, London, UK

Cite this as BMJ Careers ; doi: