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What are SSCs?
At the end of third year at Newcastle University, the Medical School sets aside four weeks known as the SSC; the student selected component. As the name somewhat implies, it’s the part of the course that we are able to choose! Often these are short placements in an area of medicine, for example, a GP practice, ITU, or A+E. However, in addition to these clinical placements, the university supplies a couple of non-clinical SSCs through the system. One of these is a four-week teaching block in Global Health, which I chose for myself during my third year.
Other medical schools might treat SSCs a bit differently. For example, at Newcastle, we get 1 x 4-week block in the 3rd and 4th year. However, other medical schools may do 1-2 week SSCs at more regular intervals. Make sure to look at the medicine course pages to get an idea of how they’re done at the universities you are interested in. While you’re looking, you might find our calculator useful!
What did I choose and why?
After seeing Global Health under the choices for public SSCs, I had a gut reaction of “oh god why would anyone put themselves through that”. It drew my mind back to poorly attended first-year lectures on the determinants of health and Zola’s triggers. Not great experiences. But after a few moments, I started to think about it a bit harder. That was Public Health. Although I knew they overlapped, I was curious to see quite how much. There was some information attached to it, so I had a click-through and saw some impressive learning outcomes that struck a chord with me.
We learned a lot about inequalities in the “developing world”. For example, learning about how health aid was distributed and what stops it, and some teaching on healthcare problems specifically faced in the global south. It really struck me that I knew absolutely nothing about it. I mean… I knew all about Water Aid, and maybe some generic ideas. But I realised we hadn’t received any teaching on things like this. So maybe a little on a whim, I clicked to put it on my list. Lo and behold, I got the SSC a few weeks later. I wasn’t really surprised – I knew it wouldn’t be very popular. This made me a little nervous, less so because I thought it would be difficult, or I might struggle, but more because I thought it might be boring. Either way, I made my way to the local hospital for my new placement.
What was my SSC like?
In contrast to my gut feelings and fears, I really truly loved my SSC, so much so that I wish I could choose the same again.
The SSC was structured much the same as most pre-clinical teaching; I had a timetable of various lectures and seminars to attend, most of which were based at the education centre at a local hospital. I took the SSC in 2021, which meant there was a little adjustment for COVID-19; we were also allowed to do lectures from home if we were isolating (which proved useful in my case).
Words don’t quite do the SSC justice. Compared to med school lectures, I feel like I have a great appreciation of the problems faced in other health systems. We saw multiple practitioners come to visit us and tell their stories from different expeditions to Tanzania. There is something about hearing stories from these places that really puts things into perspective. There’s a real difference between hearing about the problems of a certain health system, then hearing why it meant a family went without a mother as she couldn’t make it to the hospital in time to survive. Hearing why sometimes ethics really are grey from case studies of things that really did happen. I’d recommend it to anyone, and quite honestly I think it’s criminal we don’t learn more about how lucky we are in the UK to have things like the NHS and accessible medicine.
How did it work?
After the four weeks were sadly over, we had to hand in our logbooks. This was essentially the way we were ‘assessed’ for this portion of the course, though how scrutinized they are really depends on who your supervisor is.
The logbook takes the form of a number of self-set learning outcomes which you must describe how you will achieve, along with a learning log and reflective diary you should complete throughout your time. I reflected on lectures every couple of days and write what I learnt, as well as any extracurricular learning. For instance, I had a book recommended to me, “My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite. In clinical SSCs, the reflective log might take the form of a log of a patient encounter you found particularly challenging or enlightening.
My personal experience was that the process was very simple and easy, and definitely not something to stress about. In fact, one of the best things about this part of the course has been that I didn’t need to worry about how much of it would be on the exams. It was a weight off my shoulders, and I was able to appreciate the content a lot more.
What did I learn?
The most important thing I learned in the SSC that I am fascinated by global health, which is very valuable in and of itself. I’m now heavily considering an intercalated year to achieve a Masters of Global Public Health. My thoughts about medicine have widened and brought new issues to the front of my mind. I learned that Global Health played a lot into some of my previous non-medical interests; I’m quite interested in the world as a whole and global affairs, and I find politics interesting to keep up with, both of which have huge impacts on Global Health and how we go about giving healthcare. It’s very important to know how big a part it plays.
If I had any recommendations for planning and choosing your own SSC, I’d really recommend you just go for it. Choose what you find interesting in Medicine, or even something new you’ve never thought of before, and enjoy your four weeks there. All in all, if you don’t enjoy your SSC, it’s likely not going to impact you that much. However, if you do like it, it could change the course of what you choose to do in medicine. It could even make you all the better and more holistic as a practitioner.