Dr Emma Williams Interview: The cycling expedition GP

Devon GP Dr Emma Williams challenges those who feel that GP life can sometimes be routine to seize the opportunity to go exploring.

Dr Williams: 'There are plenty of ways to become involved in expedition medicine, try out different sports and activities and meet new people'
Dr Williams: 'There are plenty of ways to become involved in expedition medicine, try out different sports and activities and meet new people'

What is it like being an expedition doctor?

Difficult patients and never-ending paperwork can occasionally leave even the most dedicated GP feeling rather disillusioned.

However, my recent experience as the cycle medic on the 244-mile London to Paris bike ride reminded me of the many exciting opportunities there are for GPs away from the surgery desk.

Three days on a bike followed by a relaxing day in Paris - who wouldn't return with a spring in their step and a smile on their face, ready to face the world again?

Expeditions give doctors the opportunity to participate in all kinds of trips, from spending a few weeks trekking to the North Pole, to one-day or weekend trips in the UK. There are plenty of ways to become involved in expedition medicine, try out different sports and activities and meet new people.

On the London to Paris bike ride, there were 90 participants of all ages, from all walks of life. Most were raising money for charity and in all, an impressive £100,000 was raised. Some came with friends or family, others did it alone, and many friendships were formed.

As the cycle medic, my role was to attend to any injuries and keep up morale. For those who were struggling at the back, I was there to give encouraging tips.

So while your thighs might be burning and your heart pounding, it is important to smile and spur on the participants, because it's not about you - it's about getting the group safely across the finishing line.

Leading them down the Champs elysees with onlookers clapping and cheering was satisfaction enough, not to mention the feeling of pride that you have helped people achieve their goal and complete their personal challenge.

Have you been involved in other expeditions?

Yes, including climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (twice) and the Three Peaks Challenge in the UK. Getting involved in expedition work is easy as there are so many adventure companies arranging events.

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a very popular trip, so companies are often looking for doctors to be their expedition medic.

I would recommend this to any doctor who has a sense of adventure and doesn't mind the cold. I enjoyed it so much, I went back for a second time, and I know several doctors who have done it many times.

One of the key difficulties is that anyone can get altitude sickness, so it is important to know the signs to look for, to ensure you are carrying the necessary medication (and oxygen) and to inform all participants before you set off about the symptoms and the importance of letting you know if they feel unwell.

One of the toughest parts of a trip like this, where people have trained so hard and raised so much money for their charity, and are so determined to make it to the summit, is telling someone they have to stop and sending them back down the mountain if they become unwell.

You also have to cross your fingers that you don't fall victim to altitude sickness yourself.

Being physically fit is important, but you don't have to be a super athlete to be an expedition medic - unless you're going with Ben Fogle and James Cracknell. You do need a positive attitude, and the ability to work well with others and stay calm when situations get tricky.

How are the trips funded?

Generally for overseas trips, expedition medics are not paid, but all your expenses are covered.

It is normally possible to change your flights, so you have a chance for some rest and recreation after the challenge. I feel it is criminal to go to Tanzania without visiting the Serengeti for a safari or the idyllic white beaches of Zanzibar.

As a locum, it is easier for me to be more flexible, but for salaried doctors or partners, there are still plenty of opportunities to go on exciting expeditions for just a few days or even a weekend.

I challenge any doctor who feels GP life can sometimes be routine to seize the opportunity. It will enhance your leadership, teamwork and communication skills, not to mention the possible variety of medical encounters.

You'll return to your practice feeling better for having shed a few pounds and you'll earn respect from your patients for practising what you preach about healthy living.

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