I absolutely loved being an expedition doctor. The first time I realised how many opportunities there were for medics who wanted adventure was in 2010. I applied for a voluntary position with the charity Raleigh International coordinating medical help for young trekkers in Borneo. Although the job was only for three months, I took a full year out between jobs and spent the rest of the time working in New Zealand and Sweden as a medic, travelling and polishing up my Spanish in Argentina and trekking to Everest base camp to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. It did feel like a grown-up year out with a lot more responsibility. When I was working for Raleigh International, I divided my time between trekking with the young people and ensuring that their medical needs were met and manning the radio back at HQ to help coordinate medical evacuations or respond to requests for information and guidance. Sometimes, I felt like a mother hen reassuring teenagers about minor complaints and helping them get through homesickness.
There are lots of expedition doctors like me who volunteer for this role in their annual leave time or during career breaks, and this does involve a certain amount of planning and negotiating with Trusts and employers. Some jobs can last as little as two weeks, others may last months. To be honest, it is hard to get time off during training unless you take a break between jobs which I did. Even then, I know that some doctors find it
tricky to take a break during training. It isn’t impossible to work full time for the NHS and volunteer for expeditions in your spare time when you are more experienced. A friend of mine, who is a surgical registrar, does manage to combine clinical surgery with working for Lifebox, a charity which is helping to make surgery safer around the world.
Some doctors have decided to make this a full-time career and they are usually paid for their efforts but this is a career choice. Most are volunteers and receive expenses only.
Doctors from all disciplines can become expedition medics and nurses and paramedics midwives are often welcomed too. Most of the expedition doctors I know have a background in A&E medicine or general practice, but this is not a rule. You really need to be flexible, adaptable and able to respond to a wide range of problems with very little immediate technical assistance backup.
Since I returned from my year out, I have helped set up a one-day training course at the Royal Society of Medicine, ‘Opportunities in Humanitarian and Expedition Medicine which runs every two years. I am hoping my experiences will encourage more medics to take this opportunity which pays dividends in turns of job satisfaction, increased understanding of global cultures and diseases and invaluable teamwork and leadership experience. I absolutely recommend this to anyone in the profession who wants to learn about new places and enhance their medical and non-medical skill portfolio.
Dr Upasana Tayal recently gave a presentation about Tips for taking time out of a training programme’ at the Royal Society of Medicine’s Trainee meeting, ‘Opportunities in humanitarian and expedition medicine.’ www.rsm.ac.uk