My colonial medical elective

Now that I’ve finally completed the Sydney Medical Program, it’s about time that I finally post some long-overdue reflections on my elective terms in London and Hong Kong at the start of the year.

The Royal London Hospital (Barts and The London, QMUL)

The Royal London Hospital

My first elective term was spent at The Royal London Hospital under Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry (Queen Mary, University of London). The Royal London Hospital is a 650-bed tertiary hospital and the principal facility of the Barts and The London NHS Trust. It is particularly known as one of London’s major (level one) trauma centres and the home of the London Air Ambulance (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service), however a full range of medical and surgical specialties are represented.

Drs Po and Preston

I was assigned to the gastroenterology team under consultant gastroenterologist Dr Sean Preston. He was an excellent supervisor and I was lucky to have spent quite a lot of time under his guidance during my elective. Dr Roocroft (the F1 house officer) was also a great mentor, teaching me the ins and outs of being a house officer in the NHS.

Work casual

Work attire in NHS hospitals is very appropriately guided by infection control considerations. In summary:

  • no tie
  • sleeves rolled-up to elbows
  • no watch (most male doctors wear their watch on their belt)

The Royal London Hospital

The logic (and comfort) of this policy was such that I continued with this after returning to Sydney, where it was still convention for male doctors to wear ties.

Speaking English

There were a few differences in the medical vocabulary used in the UK, which took a little while for me to get used to. The most prominent ones during my elective were:

bleeper – pager
phlebotomy – venepuncture
OGD (oesophageogastroduodenoscopy) – endoscopy
TTA (to take away) – discharge summary

EastEnders

I alluded in a previous post that I lived in hospital accommodation. Indeed I found myself living in John Harrison House, The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel E1 2DR for the duration of my stay in London. Whilst relatively cheap (approx. £100/week), it was rather spartan. One of the other JHH residents described living there as punishment for his sins, whilst more colourful language was employed by one of the senior registrars.

One of the unexpected consequences of living in Whitechapel, with its majority non-white population, was the difficulty I had in trying to find a decent full English breakfast. Despite there being half a dozen (halal) fried chicken shops on Whitechapel Rd alone, there were very few decent cafés in the area. Spotting a modern-looking café on New Rd advertising that they served “English breakfast”, I stepped into Zaza’s Café (E1 1HJ)… only to realise that they served a halal version of English breakfast: smoked turkey, beef sausage, egg, baked beans, mushroom & toast. It wasn’t bad, but it’s just not the same! Thereafter I quickly learnt the Arabic characters for halal (حلا).

Queen Mary Hospital (HKU)

My second elective term was spent at Queen Mary Hospital under the Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong. Queen Mary Hospital (est. 1937) is a 1400-bed tertiary hospital and the principal facility of the Hong Kong West Cluster, with a catchment area population of over 500,000 people.

Queen Mary Hospital, Hong Kong

I was attached to a final-year group undertaking their Specialty Clerkship rotation. This works rather differently from the way our attachments work during clinical years – instead of being attached to a specific medical/surgical specialty team for the duration of a clinical attachment, each group of HKU students is allocated to one general medical ward where they’re expected to clerk patients (with seemingly little direct role in patient care). They take part in case discussions, PBL tutorials, and clinics with consultants from different specialties over the course of the term. Often ward-based tutorials were quite crowded, particularly with the confined spaces inside most hospital wards in Hong Kong (see pic below – I wasn’t standing at the back).

Ward tutorial, QMH

Masquerade

I was in Hong Kong during the 2009 influenza H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic. Following their experience during the SARS epidemic, all Hong Kong hospitals had activated what they termed “pandemic emergency response level E2”. One of the E2 requirements was that a surgical face mask was required in all clinical areas – effectively meaning that staff/students had to wear surgical masks all day!

Emergency E2 clinical attire

White coat syndrome

In total contrast to NHS policy, Hong Kong clinical attire convention was still very conservative and included the wearing of a “clean, white laboratory coat”. I’d never previously worn a lab coat in the clinical setting, but noticed two advantages: (i) it was handy having large pockets in which to put my stuff (e.g. Oxford Handbook of Clinical Medicine), and (ii) I got my student/staff discount at the hospital cafeteria and Starbucks without having to show any ID. Nevertheless, once I returned to Sydney I greatly appreciated not having to wear a lab coat.

HKU Specialty Clerkship group a/b, 2010 rotation 1

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank the Specialty Clerkship group to which I was attached – Fifian, Jimi, James, Vincent, Rosemary, Edgar and Sha Sha – for helping me to fit-in and manage the language barrier.

This is London calling

I’m currently in the United Kingdom doing a medical elective attachment in General & Emergency Medicine at The Royal London Hospital, organised through Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry; part of Queen Mary, University of London. The medical elective is a component of final-year in most medical programs worldwide and gives students the flexibility to complete an attachment of their choice in a location of their choice (usually overseas where practicable).

"Dancing Queen" Virgin Atlantic A340-600
“Dancing Queen” Virgin Atlantic A340-600

The journey here was a challenge in itself. During the flight I became rather acquainted with Virgin Atlantic’s quirkiness – the plane was named “Dancing Queen”, the safety video contained visual jokes, Virgin Cola was served (not bad, actually), and as we approached Heathrow Airport the pilot remarked that it was a “perky 2°C” and “moist” in London. So after some 23 hours aboard an aeroplane, I found myself in Heathrow Terminal 3 severely jetlagged and feeling deserving of an award for endurance. As for getting into London proper, I knew better than to catch the Tube, but nothing quite prepared me for the swarming sea of commuters when I got off the Heathrow Connect train at Paddington station (mental note: never catch London public transport with luggage during peak hour). Needless to say I gave up on public transport at this stage and caught a taxi the rest of the way to the hospital.

London Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5
Ooh, shiny… Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 (Terminal 3 was underwhelming)

First impressions? As an Antipodean who’s never previously travelled to Europe, what’s struck me most about being here is how short the winter days are: the sun rises at around 0800 and sets around 1550! I realise that it’s associated with the relatively high latitude (London 51.5°N vs Sydney 33.8°S), but nevertheless I’m already starting to feel SAD (seasonal affective disorder)!

More posts to come later…