Natasha Ahmed is a Foundation Year 2 Doctor in the North West of England. She studied an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences before deciding to study Medicine in Poland. Today she has kindly shared her journey of applying to medical school in Europe, and what the experience was like for her.
I have always had an interest in the sciences and maths but was unsure if my career path would be in dentistry or medicine, as both were equally attractive. I decided to study biomedical sciences for my undergraduate degree, which covered physiology, neurology and microbiology, to name a few courses, and thoroughly enjoyed them. However, there was a lack of exposure into subjects for dentistry, therefore I chose to do my research project on whitening agents using bovine enamel. I heavily researched both courses and eventually ruled out dentistry. Once I was sure of Medicine, I had to decide on the best university and apply through UCAS.
As a graduate applying for Medicine, I researched to find the best school to fit my needs, and quickly realised student finance does not give a second loan. This meant either way, I would end up paying out of pocket. With this in mind, I decided to expand my search criteria and started venturing out, looking for opportunities in different countries. The option of looking abroad was enticing as I love travelling and wanted to experience a new culture. My initial thought was America however this was very expensive and out of my budget.
Whilst researching, I stumbled across a university in Poland which assessed students using the same exam boards as American medical students, which meant it would not only open the doors to come back and practice in the UK, but I could also potentially apply for a residency programme in the US. The tuition for university in Poland was slightly more expensive than what I would pay in the UK, however, living costs were lower. Therefore, as I calculated expenditures, I felt I would be spending more or less the same.
The application process to apply for medical school in Poland was later than UCAS, so if I wanted to, I could have applied in the UK and if unsuccessful, would still have the option of applying in Europe. For undergraduates, the entry requirements are also typically lower than in the UK, therefore it is a good option for those unsuccessful in the UK application cycle.
Poland offered medical courses that were 6 years (for undergraduates) and 4 years (for post-graduates). The UK offers a 4-year graduate-entry medicine but it is highly competitive and you need to sit the GAMSAT. This means a lot of graduates in the UK end up doing the standard 5-year Medicine course in the UK, adding another year of study and another year to pay tuition for.
When applying to Poland, I needed to submit either UCAT or GAMSAT results and sit an entrance exam which covered questions from biology, physics, chemistry and maths. Once the entrance exam was complete, I was invited to an interview and then received an offer.
The advantages for studying in Poland was that I got to experience life in a completely different country and challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone, yet still remain relatively close to home so I could visit often. In terms of medicine and my career, I felt the advantages were that the course was very hands on as we would dissect cadavers in every anatomy session and had access to brand new simulation facilities. Long-term, it meant that I could apply for residency in America more easily should I want to. For me, applying abroad compared to the UK wouldn’t have made a difference financially and I therefore didn’t place too much emphasis on this.
In all honesty, there weren't many disadvantages with studying abroad. Initially, it was difficult to understand the language, as we were required to learn basic Polish and medical Polish as part of the curriculum. Medicine in Europe is very self-motivated and independent which can be disadvantageous to some, but I enjoyed this style of learning. Finally, the pass mark in exams ranged between 60-80% which is quite steep in comparison to the UK where it sits at around 50% in most medical schools.
In order to apply for a foundation training post, I was required to sit an ILETS exam, which is an English efficiency test. The GMC require this exam to be sat for courses that are not at least 75% English. My course was technically considered to be 50/50 English/Polish as the first 2 years of basic sciences were taught in English, and the latter 2 years were spent in a Polish hospital and therefore considered Polish. Even though we largely spoke to patients in English, we did often need to get a translator for some patients. The ILETS exam was therefore mandatory for me however wasn't a problem as I could already speak the language well.
The process of applying to a training post in the UK was relatively straightforward and similar to the process for UK medical graduates.
As the curriculum at the time was based on the American national board of examinations I did struggle with the transition to the NHS. It’s a big jump to go from being a medical student to a doctor as it is, but worse when all the drug names you know are suddently different and the guidance and protocols for common conditions were different. My foundation trust did accommodate for the fact I studied in Europe and offered extra support to make this transition easier. Coupled with the help of colleagues I was able to transition to the new system well. I'm now in my second year of foundation training and feel very well adjusted to the NHS.
Author: Dr Natasha Ahmed
Editor: Dr Latifa Haque