Polar Medicine – An Experience Like No Other

June 20, 2015

Gap Medics students ready for surgery! If you would like to practice medicine in a location so remote that only a few other medics have ventured before, you should take a look at polar medicine.

The first question that is most likely to go through your mind is, ‘what is the difference between polar and non-polar medicine?’ Most people are under the impression that both forms of medicine are one and the same, the only difference being that polar medicine is practiced in freezing conditions. That’s only partly right. The fact is, the experience of living and working in these remote regions is very different from that of most suburban or rural practices and while the medicinal principles may be the same, polar medicine typically deals with conditions such as hypothermia, frostbite, cold-water immersion and altitude related illnesses, all of which are relatively rare in non-polar environments.  

  • Studying Polar Medicine

Because the biggest factor in this specialty is the extreme conditions under which you will be working, polar medicine is typically studied on site. This allows students to familiarise themselves with the icy cold polar environment and the harsh terrain and to determine whether or not they really can handle the harsh conditions.

From mastering the techniques required to travel in a polar environment to developing winter survival skills, polar medicine programmes have a most unusual curriculum. The goal is to prepare medical practitioners to be able to reach individuals who are critically ill or injured and administer emergency medical care no matter how harsh the climatic conditions.  

Take a look at some of the non-medical skills you will get to learn during any polar medicine course:

– Snow mobiling

– Dog sledding

– Snow shoeing

– Skidooing

– Skiing

– Learning to repair your own snow vehicle

– Building emergency shelters

– Lighting a fire

– Avalanche awareness

– Navigation

– Digging Snow Holes

All of these skills are equally essential for anyone who wants to be a doctor in the polar environment.

Some of the medical conditions that you will most commonly treat as a polar medical practitioner include cardiac arrhythmias caused by the shock of falling into icy cold water, hypothermia and broken bones.  

  • Essential Attributes For Anyone Considering Polar Medicine

While the only academic requirement for enrolling in a polar medicine course is that you have to be a doctor, having a background in trauma, emergency medicine or any other type of expedition medicine would be very useful as most medicine practiced here is dealing with emergencies.  

The non-academic requirements are more important however, as your ability to practice and even your survival depends on it. You need to have a reasonable level of fitness, be able to work as part of a team, be prepared to work autonomously and take decisions if there is no one else around and gain mastery of travelling over harsh terrain in snowy conditions.