Objectives The purpose of this study was to explore the complexities (including harms and benefits) of international health electives (IHEs) involving medical trainees. This exploration contributes to the ongoing debate about the goals and implications of IHEs for medical trainees. Methods This qualitative study used anonymous, one-to-one, semi-structured interviews. All participants had previous international health experiences. Between September 2007 and March 2008, we interviewed a convenience sample of health care professionals (n = 10) and medical trainees (n = 10). Using a modified grounded theory methodology, we carried out cycles of data analysis in conjunction with data collection in an iterative and constant comparison process. The study's thematic structure was finalised when theme saturation was achieved. Results Participants described IHEs in both negative and positive terms. IHEs were described as unsustained short-term contributions that lacked clear educational objectives and failed to address local community needs. Ethical dilemmas were described as IHE challenges. Participants reflected that many IHEs included aspects of medical tourism and the majority of participants described the IHE in negative terms. However, a few participants acknowledged the benefits of the IHE. Specifically, it was seen as an introduction to a career in global health and as a potential foundation for more sustainable projects with positive host community impacts. Finally, despite similar understandings among participants, self-awareness of medical tourism was low. Conclusions International health electives may include potential harms and benefits for both the trainee and the host community. Educational institutions should encourage and support structured IHEs for trainee participation. We recommend that faculties of medicine and global health educators establish pre-departure training courses for trainees and that IHE opportunities have sufficient structures in place to mitigate the negative effects of medical tourism. We also recommend that trainees be provided with opportunities to conduct self-reflection and critically assess their IHE experiences.