Core Skills — 12 March 2023 at 10:47 am

Outdoor Skills for the Expedition Medic

Dr Alex Reid / Winter Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and ACCS CT1 Anaesthetics / Highlands, Scotland

A good expedition medic is so much more than just being a good clinician. We need to have a mix of clinical, interpersonal, leadership and expedition skills relevant to that environment. This article will focus on these ‘expedition’ skills; explaining what they are, understanding why they are important and giving you a few ideas of how you can gain them and demonstrate your competence.

Please note, although competent to work in an expedition environment, without the appropriate leadership or instructional qualification, you should not be used as an additional instructor or guide to increase the numbers on an expedition. Insurance companies would be unlikely to cover you in the event of an accident. A diploma or masters in expedition or mountain medicine is not a qualification to lead or instruct.

What are ‘expedition’ skills?

Expedition skills allow us to comfortably work within and travel safely through the environment we are in. For example, on a canoeing expedition down the Amazon, to have the ability to be able to manoeuvre a canoe and assist the leader with rescuing other members of the team if they got into difficulty. We would also need to be comfortable living in a jungle environment, with an awareness of how to keep ourselves and others safe, knowledge of the fauna and flora and how to use required tools safely, e.g. a machete.  We want to know we can always be ready ahead of the team, so we can support them each morning with any medical queries.

Why are they important?

The Faculty of Pre-Hospital Care (FPHC) gives guidance on the skills and competencies an expedition medic should possess depending on the expeditions’ remoteness and risk. It is essential reading for anyone considering work in the field.

The FPHC cites examples of the expedition medic not having all these skills. For example, the medic on a high-altitude expedition having no prior altitude experience, then struggling and becoming unwell before being evacuated off the mountain, so leaving the team without a medic. Other examples include the medic not having the technical skills such as being able to get through rocky scrambling terrain to reach a casualty.

Finally, we know as medics that prevention is better than a cure. If you understand the activity and environment, you can work with the team to prevent injury and illness far more effectively. Basic camp skills like knowing how to purify water, safely prepare food, manage fires and stoves and waste disposal are absolutely necessary if you plan to work anywhere that these may be required.

Gaining skills and demonstrating competence

Outdoor qualifications, a logbook of experience, courses and formal postgraduate diplomas and masters programmes all have their place.

Qualifications are often required for client-to-staff ratios and quickly demonstrate your interest and base ability to a company. Some companies only take medics who already have certain industry-standard qualifications. For example, British Canoeing 3* would show your ability to paddle on moving water in a canoe or a Mountain Training summer Mountain Leader qualification would show your ability to safely lead groups in the UK mountains in non-winter conditions.

A logbook would be another way to show someone your experience when applying to be the medic on an expedition. If you can present them with details of the types of vessels you’ve sailed alongside the locations and weather or scuba dive types, profiles and conditions this may be more valuable than a qualification as it shows your ongoing currency and development. However, it doesn’t necessarily show you have learnt the ‘correct’ way to do things in the same way an industry standard course may. A course with a certificate of attendance, again, would show that you have attended formal training. For example, if you were to book a jungle survival course, you could also ask the instructor leading the course to write a reference or letter of recommendation.

Diplomas and Masters programmes can demonstrate competency, such as the Diploma in Expedition and Wilderness Medicine or the Diploma in Mountain Medicine. They show an employer that you have invested significant time and interest into the field, are up-to-date with academic findings and guidance and have been assessed and met certain criteria for work in a particular environment.

Next steps

  • Start a logbook
  • Consider which activities you would like to try or develop
  • Check out the Adventure Medic resources with recognised industry-standard outdoor qualifications to work towards
  • See our course reviews section on our events page to help you decide which courses may be for you
  • Visit our resources section on the plethora of formal post-graduate diploma and masters programmes now available

Whether you join a mountaineering club, find a kayaking course or join an expedition medicine course based on the slopes, we wish you happy adventures. If you have been on a course or completed a diploma that you’d like to review, please get in touch and we’ll send you our proforma for these. We have all benefited from the gems on Adventure Medic and are keen to keep sharing opportunities and your insights. We look forward to hearing your suggestions and what you get up to next.