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What Is Wilderness Medicine?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 August 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Wilderness medicine is medical practice in isolated environments where people may have limited access to equipment and treatment options, and patients must travel an hour or more to reach hospital care. People in remote areas working, conducting scientific research, or engaging in recreation like hiking can be at risk of a variety of medical problems, including injuries, disease, allergic reactions, and so forth. A care provider with wilderness medicine training and experience can stabilize a patient to make it possible to transfer her, in addition to providing monitoring and interventions during the transport process.

Doctors, nurses, and emergency medical providers like paramedics and emergency medical technicians can all receive training in wilderness medicine. People who work in search and rescue usually learn it as well, so they can provide medical aid to people in trouble in the wilderness. People offering medical assistance in remote locations are limited by factors like not having very much equipment, being unable to perform surgery or use even basic diagnostic equipment like X-rays, and the environment itself. It's challenging to provide medical care in blizzards and other adverse weather conditions.

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As with other emergency medicine, the first concern is the patient's airway, breathing, and circulation. The care provider needs to quickly assess the patient's basic condition and develop an appropriate treatment plan. People usually carry bandages and some other basic first aid equipment. People with medical licenses can administer medications and may carry a kit with some basics, including things like epinephrine for allergies. The goal is not to provide complete treatment, but to get the patient stable enough to survive transport.

Some wilderness medicine is fairly basic. People who develop vomiting and diarrhea might just need fluids to stay hydrated and rest to allow their bodies to recover. In the case of things like broken legs, more advanced treatment including splinting is necessary. More complex medical issues, however, can become harder to manage. People may also need to think about how to safely extract the patient. Injuries incurred in falls may require rope rescue to get to the patient, or people may need to manage rock falls, mudslides, and other hazards while providing care and getting patients ready to take to a medical facility.

Groups traveling in remote areas often take someone with wilderness medicine training along for safety. This person can pack a basic medical kit and is also ready to use objects from the surrounding environment, if necessary. For example, backpacks can be used to make a stretcher, or a steam tent for someone with difficulty breathing can be made with a ground sheet and some rigging.

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