Broadening horizons - the BMDST at 50

Adam Campbell celebrates an organisation supporting student electives abroad for over half a century

  • Date: 03 January 2011

REACHING the ripe old age of 50 is always a cause for celebration, and the British Medical and Dental Students’ Trust (BMDST), a charity that provides travel scholarships to medical and dental students going abroad for their electives, is certainly in the mood to celebrate. “We’re very proud it’s lasted as long as it has, and to feel we are contributing to a broadening of medical and dental education,” says Dr John Bootes, who has been a trustee of the charity for the whole half-century since its inception.

Things have changed quite a bit since the beginning when, as a representative of Barts Hospital on the British Medical Students’ Association, Dr Bootes took part in the vote that set up what was then the British Medical Students’ Trust (the dentists came on board in 1985). In those days, the idea was to allow students to travel to a medical school in Europe.

“The most important thing was the opportunity to experience a different training programme,” says Dr Bootes. “In 1960/61 we were giving away three guineas – you could go to Paris on that.”

Outward-looking students

Of course, these days three guineas would barely get you from one side of a city to the other, and 50 years on the students being funded by the Trust with grants of up to £1,000 are going a lot further than France – anywhere in the world, in fact, from North America to South Africa, Malawi to Malaysia, and beyond.

The Trust still holds to its outward-looking ethos that to work in health services outside the UK is a valuable learning experience that is worth supporting. But rather than simply experiencing a different university programme, nowadays students receive grants on the basis that they will be carrying out specific projects in whatever country they choose to travel to.

As the current chairman of the Trust, dentist Andrew Lamb, himself a trustee since 2002, explains: “We don’t support people who go abroad just to do an attachment to a unit. That’s not an inferior option, but it’s not the purpose of the Trust. So as part of the evaluation of student applications, we make sure there is a proper research protocol and that the staff and facilities where students are proposing to go are capable of supporting them.

“The protocol has to give an indication of the aims of the project, the methods of the study, how the results will be analysed and what the conclusions are likely to be. We would expect them to have a pretty clear idea of how they’re going to do the project and what it might throw up.”

Grant applications are scrutinised by the trustees, who include a representative of each of the Councils of Deans of medical and dental schools, as well as two medical students and one dental student elected by their representative bodies.

The onus is on the student to find a suitable institution to support their elective. “Usually students will be quite interested in a particular topic, whether it’s malaria or diabetes or HIV, and will hunt out an appropriate place themselves, or sometimes a supervisor in the UK might have links with an overseas institution,” says Andrew Lamb.

Donations key

Like any charity, donations are the key to its survival and the BMDST raises around £40,000 every year from donors in the pharmaceutical industry, such as GlaxoSmithKline and Abbott Laboratories, and interested associations such as the BMA and the BDA, among others.

According to Mr Lamb, donors like the fact that they can contribute to the welfare and education of medical and dental students without having to do the day-do-day administration. “It’s convenient for them to allow us to do it on their behalf. It really makes their contribution cost-effective,” he says.

And thanks to arrangements such as that with the MDDUS – which administers the grant applications – the trustees are able to distribute a staggering 95 per cent of everything they raise to students, around 60 of whom benefit every year.

It’s a statistic Mr Lamb is particularly proud of, and one that he believes is very attractive to donors, who like to know their money is going directly to the students. “We try very hard to keep our overheads down as low as possible.”

It is hard work, altruism on the part of the trustees and donors, and statistics like these that have helped the Trust to endure over the past 50 years, but what about the next 50? Mr Lamb has no doubt it will continue to endure and says simply: “It’s been going for 50 years and it’s still in good health. Long may it continue.”

For more information on the British Medical and Dental Students’ Trust, visit or call the MDDUS on 0845 270 2034.

Adam Campbell is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to MDDUS publications



Graham Johnson Dr Graham Johnson remembers his elective in Trinidad & Tobago in 2004 with fondness. Travelling with two friends from Birmingham University, he learned a great deal, saw cases he was unlikely to see in the UK and found the whole experience hugely beneficial. And it was a trip, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to afford had he not received a grant from the BMDST.

“We had a great project sorted out, and it was only when we started costing up how much it was going to be that we realised, if we’re going to be able to do this we’re going to have to get some funding,” says the 28-year-old, now an A&E registrar in Derby.

After a little research, they came across the Trust and three of them subsequently applied for and got grants, which allowed the trip to go ahead. “The BMDST grant really helped us to get there.”

A supervisor put Graham in touch with the orthopaedic department at Port of Spain General Hospital where, among other duties, he would carry out his project looking at post-trauma pain management in fracture patients, comparing patient perceptions there with a cohort in Birmingham.

“We found that people in Trinidad appeared to be a lot more tolerant of pain,” he says. “Here, a lot of people will be sent home with three painkillers. Over there they were getting paracetamol and, if they had something absolutely horrendous, they would get diclofenac. And actually their pain scores were a lot lower.

“It taught me something about patients’ expectations. In the UK, the expectation is that you will take a painkiller and have no pain at all. Over there they think: ‘Right I’ll take these and feel a bit better.’”

There were plenty of other differences too. Work at the orthopaedic clinic, for example, “started at the crack of dawn. You were in clinic for 6.30am, I think because of the temperature, but then everything wound-up at around 11.30am.”

The types of pathology were also unusual. In addition to gunshot and stab wounds, as well as cases of acanthosis nigricans, he remembers a man who had had an open wound for 15 years. “He’d fractured his lower leg initially, splinted it himself and then presented months down the line with this horrible wound that they just couldn’t get to heal. Years later, he was still able to walk but it was the most bizarre-looking thing I’d ever seen. You’d never see anything like that here.”

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