Inspiring a new generation of Antarctic doctors

When former science teacher John Cherry led three students on an expedition to Union Glacier in West Antarctica two years ago, he met a doctor who inspired him to change the course of his career.

‘I learnt about his work in Antarctica and his contribution as a doctor to communities around the world,’ Mr Cherry said.

‘I thought he’d left such a great legacy that I wanted to become a doctor myself.’

Mr Cherry is now in his second year of a medical degree at the University of Wollongong. He, and two other second-year medical students, Jessie Ling and Felix Ho, are also participating in an extra-curricular medical placement program at the Australian Antarctic Division’s Polar Medicine Unit, to learn more about what it takes to be a doctor in Antarctica.

Their placement is part of the John Flynn Placement Program, which aims to encourage medical students to work in rural and remote areas when they graduate. Each year 300 students are selected to join the program and they spend at least two weeks a year for four years with a rural doctor.

The Antarctic Division’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jeff Ayton, said it’s important for young doctors to be exposed to career opportunities outside metropolitan areas.

‘When working in smaller communities you can become a generalist doctor, and learn and practice a huge range of skills that you may not get the chance to pursue or may have to give up, if working in larger centres,’ he said.

‘In Antarctica, our doctors are the only medical care available for up to 100 people on station and they need to be able to perform general practice, surgery, emergency medicine, anaesthetics and even dentistry.

 ‘We hope that through the John Flynn Placement Program we will be able to introduce student doctors to the excitement and challenge of working in Antarctica and entice them to come back at the completion of their degrees for a stint down south.’

After his Antarctic experience Mr Cherry was keen to spend his placement at the Polar Medicine Unit.  During his two week stay in December 2012 he said he learnt a lot about expedition medicine and the unique challenges of practicing in a remote environment.

‘At medical school we’re training to be part of a hospital or general practice environment where you’re part of a team. But in Antarctica you’re the only doctor there. So it was interesting to see how the Polar Medicine Unit has recreated the team environment with teleconferencing facilities and regular contact with the doctors at each station,’ Mr Cherry said.

‘It was also fascinating to see that Antarctic doctors are well resourced, and have access to cutting-edge research and treatment through the Polar Medicine Unit. They’re able to handle almost any medical situation that arises.’

Mr Cherry said the pre-departure medical screening process for expeditioners was also a vital tool for doctors to identify people at risk of developing medical conditions that would be difficult to treat in Antarctica.

Like Mr Cherry, Jessie Ling, who is studying at the University of Tasmania, has a link to Antarctica that motivated her visit to the Polar Medicine Unit.

‘My father worked in Antarctica in 1991 as a Field Training Officer at Australia’s Casey station, so I guess that family connection ignited a passion in me to go south as well,’ she said.

‘I never thought I’d be able to get there until many years after graduation, but my placement may allow me to get there much sooner.’

Ms Ling spent her two weeks at the Polar Medicine Unit in February 2013 going through pre-departure medical reports, updating drugs and equipment for the resupply of the Antarctic stations and the ship, Aurora Australis, and sitting in on the medical information sessions for expeditioners travelling to Macquarie Island.

‘I’m really only at the stage of “advanced bandaids” in my medical degree, so my two weeks were an amazing learning experience in terms of how to treat polar injuries, the sort of equipment needed in Antarctic first aid kits, and all the different drugs and what they’re used for,’ Ms Ling said.

‘I also learnt about policies and procedures and the role of the Polar Medicine Unit in the Antarctic Division and the broader Australian Antarctic program.’

Felix Ho, who is studying his degree through the Flinders University Northern Territory Medical Program, based in Darwin, had a similar experience.

‘My placement was truly an eye-opener,’ he said.

‘I learnt about the unique challenges of polar medicine, the need to be highly skilled and independent, the importance of the psychological and holistic health of a person, rather than just their physical illness, and the diversity of skills and equipment needed by an Antarctic Medical Practitioner to perform such things as dentistry, taking an X-ray or running lab equipment for diagnostic results. ‘

The John Flynn Placement Program is funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing and administered by Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM).

Wendy Pyper
Australian Antarctic Division