Why travel can be the best medicine if you miss out on a UK place

With competition to get into medical schools hotting up, many students are looking abroad, says Russ Thorne

By now prospective students are used to hearing that competition for university places is fierce, and increasing year on year. For anyone hoping to follow a career in medicine or dentistry, however, that refrain must seem even louder. Current figures from the General Medical Council suggest there are nine applicants for every place in UK medical schools; likewise, applications for dentistry have increased by more than three per cent in the past year, according to Ucas.

The inevitable result of this level of popularity is that medical and dental schools can afford to be choosy. Candidates will need high grades to be accepted, and even then there’s no guarantee of securing a place. So if a student misses out on their grades – however narrow the margin might be – does this mean an end to their ambitions of becoming a doctor or dentist?

Not always. Traditionally students might have attempted to resit their A-levels or taken a three-year BSc course in the hope of getting into a medical or dental school at the end of it, but with courses so heavily oversubscribed, these options can be unreliable. Instead some students are looking overseas, with courses in Spain, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean or West Indies becoming increasingly popular. “We’re looking for students who would make perfectly competent doctors or dentists but who, thanks to competition in the UK, haven’t got a place on a course,” says Kal Makwana, head of the M&D Group, an organisation specialising in helping students find alternative pathways into medical and dental careers. He’s keen to stress that although the entry requirements for some schools may be slightly lower than those in the UK, studying abroad is not a soft option: “It’s not for students who only want to study medicine or dentistry because they think it’s exciting. The aptitude has to be there.”

Students who have not been offered a place at a UK medical or dental school and who are interested in heading abroad have a couple of options. They can apply directly to an overseas university following a similar process to that in the UK: applications will be assessed on A-level grades and potentially on personal statements, entrance exams and interviews. Entry requirements will vary, so candidates are advised to check with prospective universities for further information.

Another option is the year-long pre-med course offered by the M&D Group, which gives students a comprehensive grounding in core medical science subjects, such as organic chemistry and molecular biology. On completing the course, dentistry students have the option of applying to Cardenal Herrera University in Spain, while medical students can apply to universities in the

Caribbean including (in a new agreement) the West Indies. Students of both subjects also have the opportunity to venture further into Europe, with graduates of the course given preference at institutions in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland.

“The pre-med is very different to re-sitting your A-levels,” explains Makwana. “It’s like the first year of a degree programme – it’s actually set at degree level.” As in any other university course, loans are available to help cover the £14,400 course fee, and Makwana adds that graduates can apply to join the second year of a medical or dental programme. “The pre-med secures them a place to study abroad and transfer directly into the second year, and also gives them the opportunity to re-apply to UK medical or dental schools.”

Although successfully completing the pre-med course does allow students another shot at gaining a place on a UK course, Makwana explains that some students are choosing to go abroad even if their application in this country is successful. “A few students have declined places in the UK to study abroad,” he says, referring to candidates electing to study dentistry in Spain. “Even though it’s double the fee to study in Spain, the commitment is so great they’re not so concerned about the cost.”

Makwana believes that rising tuition fees in the UK are causing students to reassess their options, with the prospect of Spain’s cities and climate making up for the increased fees. It’s a theory borne out by some students. “I think that it will be a great experience to study in a different country and to see a different culture, knowing that I’ll be coming back home to the UK to practise dentistry on graduation,” says Samir Majithia, who is heading to Valencia’s Cardenal Herrera University in September. “The weather and beaches are additional bonuses.” Dentistry students study for five years in the Spanish city, with the option to join the course in the second year via the M&D pre-med.

Aspiring doctors don’t need to feel left out in the cold, though, with several island institutions offering the chance to become qualified while enjoying beachfront views. These include St Matthew’s University in the British Cayman Islands, UHMS St Kitts in the Eastern Caribbean and the University of the West Indies (UWI) at St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago. The first two offer a US-style four-year programme, while the course at UWI follows a five-year Bachelor of medicine and Bachelor of surgery (MBBS) programme. Entry is generally at graduate level so students require either a first degree or the M&D pre-med, which will allow them to join the second year of a given course.

Prospective students should be aware that the qualifications obtained from some medical schools outside the EU may not be recognised in the UK, or they may need to complete a Professional and Linguistic Assessment Board test in order to practise here. The General Medical Council has more information (gmc-uk.org).

Closer to home, medical and dental schools in Eastern Europe all offer qualifications that allow graduates to pursue their careers in the UK. Institutions include Charles University in Prague, Comenius University in Slovakia, the Medical University of Gdansk in Poland and Hungary’s University of Debrecen. All offer fees comparable to those in the UK (ranging from approximately £7,000 to £9,000 a year) with the added advantage of lower costs of living and possibly more relaxed entry requirements. It’s worth bearing in mind, says Makwana, that although courses are taught in English, the language barrier can be challenging. “Examinations are done orally, so things are bound to get lost in translation. There are students who have done very well and flown through the course, though.”

If you’ve been unable to secure a place in a UK medical or dental school, or if you simply want a change of environment, studying overseas might be the way to fulfil your ambitions. Employment prospects at home or abroad are good for students who qualify overseas, according to Makwana. “Medicine and dentistry are jobs you can take anywhere in the world. With the current economic situation, it could be wise to turn to this kind of profession,” he adds, arguing that the world will always need doctors and dentists. “There’s no such thing as a job for life but these careers are relatively safe compared to others.”

Finally, it’s worth remembering that although medicine and dentistry demand scientific rigour and empirical knowledge, at their core they are disciplines that are focused on people. Travel and overseas study can be a good way to develop the communication skills and the confidence needed to treat patients, and Makwana believes that students benefit emotionally and personally from the time they spend away from home. “Travelling does broaden the mind and when you study abroad you get to know the culture and the country,” he says. “You meet people from a range of backgrounds and develop sides of yourself that you perhaps never would in the UK.”

Anita Foroshani, preparing to start her second year studying dentistry in Spain, agrees. “Meeting new people and building long-lasting friendships has been one of the best aspects of the course so far,” she says. “To anyone considering studying abroad, I would say go for it. It may be a really big step for you, but you really won’t look back. It’s an amazing opportunity to discover new cultures and places, all while studying the subject that you want. A year has flown by for me and I can’t wait to see what the second year will entail.”

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