With the launch of the recent series of “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!” being based here in the UK, some healthcare professionals may find themselves fantasising about careers in expedition and wilderness medicine and asking themselves “how do I become an expedition medic?”.
Whether you’re interested in accompanying intrepid explorers to Everest Base Camp or checking drenched celebs for hypothermia in North Wales, we’re here to enlighten you on what it takes to become an expedition medic and how to get started.
How to get into expedition medicine
Firstly, you must bear in mind that Expedition Medicine is a fiercely competitive field that can be difficult to break into. Many adventure organisations receive applications from numerous well-qualified doctors, however the real stand-outs are the ones who have existing experience or qualifications relevant to the field. Having a recognised qualification – like a Postgraduate Diploma in Expedition and Wilderness Medicine – can give you that competitive edge that could help you compete for those coveted positions.
The application process for expedition medic roles will typically begin with emailing your CV to a company you would like to work for. We recommend really thinking about the kind of expeditions you would like to work on. A trip to Svalbard will be vastly different to a trek through the Outback, so have an idea in mind, then scope out adventure companies that cater to that kind of environment and send them your CV.
If the company likes the look of you, you will be invited for an interview. Adventure companies often like individuals with experience in Emergency Medicine, so if you don’t already have this kind of experience, you should strongly consider gaining some.
Depending on what kind of expeditions the company runs, they will look at your other experience – for example, whether you have worked at a high altitude or have knowledge of specific areas, such as tropical medicine – that would be advantageous to their expeditions. If you meet their criteria, they will then keep your CV and get in touch as and when they need expedition medics.
Once you have completed one expedition, the door will open to more opportunities as you have proved yourself at altitude and will likely have gained some experience of treating altitude sickness and other wilderness-related conditions.
If you have no experience, try scouting out companies which do frequent, popular trips. Kilimanjaro, for example, is considered a beginner expedition, covers several ecological zones, and has many companies offering frequent expeditions, so this would be a good place to start.
Alternatively, if you’re UK-based and looking for somewhere more accessible, try places like Snowdonia, the Lake District or the Scottish Highlands – these places are popular hiking destinations with numerous companies offering guided tours, and North Wales in particular is expecting a spike in visitor numbers thanks to the new series of “I’m a Celeb”.
What to expect from the role as an expedition medic and how to prepare
The role of an expedition medic can start several weeks – or even months – before the trip begins. You will usually need to send participants pre-departure medical information (such as advice on vaccinations, prescription medication and allergies), and to thoroughly check participants’ medical forms – it’s important to know exactly who will be on the expedition and whether they have any existing chronic medical conditions which will need to be managed, so you can be prepared and know what to expect.
At this stage, you may find yourself presented with a reality check and potentially some difficult decisions to make – are you willing to take responsibility for someone who has had multiple heart attacks and now wants to climb Mount Fuji, for example?
Once you embark on your expedition you will be expected to perform routine check-ins with participants to ensure they are coping well in the expedition environment, in addition to dealing with any medical problems that arise.
Dr Meinir Jones is the Associate Medical Director Transformation & VBHC & Clinical Lead MIU at Prince Philip Hospital Llanelli and a specialist in wilderness medicine. She is also our Programme Leader for the Expedition and Wilderness Postgraduate Diploma and MSc, and is a veteran of several gruelling expeditions having acted as the medical lead on a number of group challenges around the world. She gives her advice on how you can best prepare yourself for an expedition and cope while you’re in action:
Physical strength and mental strength are both vital – Physical fitness is a fundamental element of getting through any challenge of endurance. Most people focus all of their efforts on physical fitness when taking on any big adventure and often forget the importance of mental resilience. But mental strength is that ‘nth quality’ which is pivotal to success. Never underestimate the power of the mind. It will provide you with the coping strategies you need, and enhance life skills that can be translated and utilised during everyday challenges, or whatever curve balls life may throw at us.
Know yourself – Are you someone who needs regular alone time? Do you thrive on the energy of others? Are you a control freak? Do you shirk leadership roles? How are you going to tell people that? At moments like this it’s not only about knowing yourself, but also sharing this information with your team so you can understand each other better and work collectively more effectively.
Immune resilience – Before any big adventure it’s important to work on your immune resilience. There are many aspects to this, and certainly a regular and varied fitness regime and good diet are crucial. A particularly important element is gut health, which is so important for maintaining a healthy immune system. I would recommend taking probiotics every day for at least a month before any adventure.
Keep hydrated – Without sufficient hydration levels no one can operate at their peak. Dehydration can also lead to a number of unpleasant side effects like headaches, UTIs, constipation, kidney stones and more. None of which anyone wants to deal with, even at the best of times.
Cold feet – Having cold (and damp) feet, apart from feeling pretty wretched, is directly linked to respiratory tract infections, so it’s important that you prioritise maintaining dry footwear as best you can.
Pre-bed exercise – In extreme cold I always recommend that people run around the bed or tent before you get into your sleeping bag. Movement and exercise result in heat. Channel some kinetic energy before settling down to get a burst of much-needed warmth before lights out (or any time your core temperature is dropping for that matter).
Establish a routine – We all have our usual daily routines, but these are thrown out of the window the minute you begin your expedition. It’s important to establish new routines quickly. You need to create a sense of order during this unusual and extraordinary time. Routines are vital for mental health, so don’t underestimate them – find a new routine, and stick to it.
Managing fear – Fear releases many of the same chemicals within the body as excitement does – but it is certainly harder to manage, so how do you approach this? What are your tactics to cope with fear? I always advise people to step back and analyse their perception of the fear that they’re feeling. Sit with it for a few minutes and consider it. Roll it around in your head. Remember, you’re operating as part of a team, so understand that your actions will impact the whole group. It’s vital to not let your fear overrule your rational thought. It’s certainly not easy, but fear is an emotion that can be managed and controlled.
Working in expedition medicine is not only an exciting and rewarding field to get into, it can also help your medical practice too. You will develop your initiative and confidence, take on extended roles (you will find yourself expected also to function as a nurse, physio, counsellor and dentist) and experience conditions that you’re unlikely to encounter in the UK.
If you’re seriously considering a career as an expedition medic, then gaining a qualification is the best place to start. Head over to our Expedition and Wilderness Medicine Programme page for more information.