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What is Wilderness Medicine and how do you get into it?

29 November 2021

The term Wilderness Medicine has been around for a short time when considering how long wilderness medicine has been practised. The Wilderness Medical Society, which started in 1983, began to use the term ‘Wilderness Medicine’ and have since been a cornerstone of research and education in the United States.

Forty years may not seem a short time, but when you consider the first recorded instance of medical support was evidenced some 3,000 years ago during the Trojan War, four decades is a drop in the ocean. To read more on the history of expedition medics, click here, but what really sparks our interest, is what 21st century wilderness medicine offers.

Let’s take a closer look…

What is Wilderness Medicine?

Wilderness Medicine can be defined as the practice of medicine in remote areas where access to medical services, support, and facilities is limited or non-existent.

Therefore, if a medical professional is called into action, they must go beyond basic first aid training to provide advanced care and treatment.

Why is Wilderness Medicine needed?

Wilderness medicine is a rapidly evolving field and is becoming increasingly relied on as more people engage in hiking, climbing, kayaking, and other potentially hazardous activities in the pursuit of adventure.

As well as a response to the increased demand in adventure travel, wilderness medicine training also encompasses the medical skills crucial to providing care on educational trips, scientific expeditions, humanitarian rescues, disaster relief and military aid.

Roles for medics in wilderness medicine

Wilderness medicine is a broad term that covers multiple sub-specialties, harnessing the skills and experience found in different medical roles.

These include:

  • Doctors: Can consist of GPs, Psychiatrists, and other experts in medicine.
  • Nurse: Providing wound care
  • Paramedic: Assessment of injuries
  • Dentist: Dental care (Note: It’s recommended that other medical professionals learn the basics of dental care, since a dentist isn’t always available.)
  • Dietitian: Providing support and guidance about food, nutrition, and hydration.

Medical responsibilities during a wilderness expedition

Providing medical care and support is the primary focus of a medical professional during a wilderness expedition. In A Comprehensive Guide to Wilderness & Travel Medicine, author Eric A. Weiss suggests that at the heart of wilderness medicine is ‘improvisation’. By that we mean employing a combination of medical science with creativity and ingenuity – because in the wild, you’re forced to utilise whatever supplies or medical equipment you have to hand. How you put those to use is heavily reliant on a common sense approach.

Equally important is early clinical intervention and logistics decision-making, which often has important effects on subsequent outcomes. Primary responsibilities include the evaluation, triage, preliminary care of acute injuries or illnesses, and the medevac of patients.

Non-medical responsibilities and skills

Success in extreme conditions requires Health Care Professionals (HCPs) to go beyond medicine.

Survival skills, field craft and mastery of support equipment are just as vital. These include learning how to find and purify water, navigation, hiking and trekking, and choosing suitable clothing for survival in the wild.

Equally important are skills in leadership, risk assessment, incident management and search and rescue – all of which are a core focus of the most comprehensive training courses.

How do you get into Wilderness Medicine?

The first thing you need is a positive mindset and a thirst for adventure. Secondly, you’ll need additional medical training and experience.

Valuable experience can be achieved by attending expedition courses. For instance, you could start with our foundational Expedition and Wilderness Medicine courses to get to grips with the basics. You’re then able to follow up with a specialised course to hone your skills in a particular environment, like Mountain or Jungle Medicine.

That said, experience is just part of the puzzle. Networking can go a long way to helping you secure your first posting. Our courses give you the opportunity not only to meet likeminded medics learning alongside you, but also to engage with our world-class faculty who are always happy to point you in the right direction.

For unparalleled networking opportunities, we highly recommend attending the annual three day World Extreme Medicine Conference, where you can meet and build valuable relationships with hundreds of extreme medics from around the world.

Academic Medical Graduate Courses

At World Extreme Medicine, we’re passionate about providing exceptional professional development programmes in extreme medicine. Our training courses aren’t just for existing medical professionals, but also for medical graduates looking to expand their horizons.

Through partnerships with prestigious institutions such as the University of Exeter and Northeastern University, we offer immersive training courses for medical graduates that can lead to an extraordinary medical career working in extreme environments.

Our medical graduate courses set the standard for comprehensive, hands-on training in this field and can prepare you for any situation you may encounter. 

Find out more to see if it’s right for you.

What career opportunities are available after the course?

Equipped with your new wilderness medicine skillset, knowledge and some experience, what are the next steps towards a career?

Many alumni fresh from our foundational Expedition and Wilderness Medicine course are now involved in expeditions around the world. They get involved in anything from disaster response and humanitarian aid, to placements with organisations like Raleigh International, UK-Med, Team Rubicon and Médecins Sans Frontières.

One of our recent students, Thomas, said:

This course was a comprehensive introduction to the world of wilderness medicine … [and] a great opportunity to network and learn amongst similarly-minded individuals. Across the board, the faculty have experience working in hostile and austere environments and bring a diverse skill set to the table, presenting their own minds on what has worked for them in the field. I could not recommend this course highly enough to anyone considering taking their medical or nursing career in a more exciting direction.”

The most recent job postings can be found on websites like Critical Care International, Adventure Medic and our own job section. Good news is that market growth is boosting demand for competent leaders in expedition and wilderness medicine, so you can be sure that the list of opportunities will continue to grow.

The evolution of the expedition world means that groups with more diversified needs are commonly taking part in expeditions, so the range of opportunities for all levels of HCP is diverging. And that means more opportunities to take a path less trodden – with a little advice from our friend, Bear Grylls: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

→ Learn more about expedition & wilderness medicine by joining an extreme medicine training course today.

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