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Swap one island lifestyle for another

Head to the Caribbean to enrol on a course that could change your life, writes Simon Midgeley

Over the past eight years, nearly 200 UK nationals have headed abroad to train as doctors and dentists at medical schools in the Caribbean. While most of these students had originally planned to train at British medical institutions, they were unable to secure a place and instead enrolled in St Matthew’s University medical school, a US-style establishment in the British Caribbean island of Grand Cayman.

Now the recruitment agency M&D Europe and higher education provider Medipathways, which helped all of these students to head across the Atlantic, are intent on sending new generations of British students to enrol in the prestigious University of the West Indies medical and dental schools. The first admissions are scheduled to take place this autumn.

Kal Makwana, managing director of the M&D Group, realised some years ago that Britons unable to get into UK medical schools still had a chance to study abroad in the Caribbean and Eastern Europe. Today, the group offers a range of options for students looking for courses, as well as programmes to prepare them for medical and dental degrees abroad. Its one-year, full-time training for A-level students costs £14,400 and is delivered on the campus of the University of London’s Birkbeck College. It is designed to prepare students to enter a medical school either in the UK or in the Caribbean.

In the Caribbean, students would normally need to have completed a three-year science degree before going on to four years of medical tuition. The M&D course is designed to allow UK students to meet the entry requirements of the US-style medical degree courses offered in most Caribbean medical schools, without the three years’ study for a science degree. “While on the pre-med course, students have the option to reapply to a UK medical school and, if that application is unsuccessful a second time, they always know that they can study at a Caribbean medical school,” says Makwana.

Around 10 per cent of students with three-year life sciences degrees enter the St Matthew’s programme without first completing the pre-med course. Student Finance England has just announced that students doing the pre-med programme will be eligible for funding. Fifty per cent of fees could be covered by loans. The course is also to be Ucas-listed soon. Around 100 UK nationals are currently studying to become doctors, while also preparing for the US doctor of medicine (MD) qualification obtained by passing the US Medical Licensing Examination. Students spend two years training on Grand Cayman and then two years in clinical training in US or UK hospitals, including London’s Whipps Cross, Barnsley, Stepping Hill in Stockport and Ealing in Middlesex. Course fees are $96,750 (£59,000). Some 60 per cent of M&D’s UK graduates have gone on to practise in the US, and 40 per cent of these have since returned to work in the UK.

However, in order to practise in the UK, students from schools outside the European economic area, such as the Caribbean, must pass the General Medical Council’s (GMC’s) Professional and Linguistics Assessment Board (PLAB) examination. This consists of two exams: a multiple choice test of medical knowledge and a practical exam involving simulated consultations. A second vital hurdle for students enrolling at St Matthew’s is that the GMC currently only considers whether to allow St Matthew’s graduates to register to practise in the UK on a case-by-case basis. Such graduates may be required to submit additional information, such as exam transcripts and details of clinical experience, before a decision is made on whether their primary medical qualification is acceptable.

The GMC has a list of international medical schools whose qualifications it recognises; another list of schools where it considers applicants on a case-by-case basis; and a third list of schools whose qualifications are unacceptable.

Also be aware that the acceptability of overseas qualifications from medical schools can change over time. Schools can be moved from the acceptable to the “maybe” list and then on to the unacceptable list, and vice versa. This autumn, the University of West Indies medical school – which is on the GMC’s approved list – and its dental school hope to admit some UK nationals to their programmes. The university has taken UK students in the past, but none enrolled this year or the year before.

Makwana said: “The university approached us to say it was very interested in our students. We will be sending the first wave out there this September. The university has decided if a student has completed our pre-med programme it would consider that student for first- and possibly second-year entry.’’ The University of the West Indies, which was established by the University of London, offers a five-year Bachelors degree in medicine and surgery at a fee for five years of £90,000. This is more similar to the UK qualification than the MD offered by other Caribbean medical schools. It would be much more aligned to the British medical system, although graduates would still have to sit the PLAB exam.

Vaaheesan Sundaraantham, a 23-year-old British national from New Malden in Surrey, enrolled on the pre-med programme after failing to get the A-level grades to take up an offered place at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. He heard of M&D through family friends, who found out about it on the readmedicine.com website. The course, he said, was a great introduction to the rigours of training to be a doctor.