July 2, 2018, by studentcontributor

Hosting the Student Wilderness Medicine Conference 2017

The SWMUK Conference is one of the largest events in the Student Wilderness Medicine calendar, attracting hundreds of healthcare students, of all ages and experiences, from universities across the UK (and beyond!) The term “conference” is deceptive, however, and those expecting a sedentary weekend of lecture halls and awkward small-talk will be sorely disappointed by the vibrant, hands-on and infinitely inspiring talks and workshops on offer at these events year after year. The SWMUK conferences are for those seeking a career in healthcare that’s off-the-beaten-track: to combine medicine with their love for adventure and the outdoors.

Hosted by a different university each year, the event has made its way up and down the country, with recent conferences being hosted as far afield as a farm in Snowdonia and a scout camp near Edinburgh. In 2007, the University of Nottingham brought the conference back to the Midlands and welcomed our friends and colleagues from across the UK (and even some intrepid explorers from continental Europe!) Having hosted the Wild Trials wilderness medicine competition in 2015 (and still riding the wave of our success at the 2017 event), the committee from Nottingham was keen to take on the next challenge and tackle the SWMUK conference.

Nottingham team

Our team of 5 consisted of Dervla Ireland (4th year), Ewa Kunysz (2nd Year), Helen Wright (2nd year) and Neil Ganatra (3rd Year) – with Rhys Taylor (4th year) joining towards the end of the process – all of whom had been, or would in time become, members of the main society committee. We had 6 months, from February to October, to plan from scratch a conference of over 100 healthcare students, 30+ guest lecturers and workshop-leaders and several associate groups, professional bodies and sponsors.

Contrary to a usual single-day conference, the SWMUK has always been an overnight camping affair, meaning we had to account for the camping facilities, food, drink and of course evening entertainment for all our merry delegates (did someone say ceilidh?!). A lecture hall just wouldn’t cut it. In true wilderness medicine style then, we picked out a scout camp which struck the perfect balance between having everything we needed (including space for a stunning, rustic Tipi!) and being just uncomfortable enough to convince ourselves that we were in the wild. Sherbrooke Scout Camp, just outside Nottingham, fit the bill perfectly.

Wilderness and adventurous medicine

The talks and workshops form the crux of any conference and SWMUK has a reputation of hosting some of the most inspiring and admirable speakers in wilderness and adventurous medicine. Talks ranged from the fast-paced trauma of military medicine to the decision-making and resource-management involved in remote environments such as Antarctic research vessels and humanitarian disasters. Medics operate in all manner of austere environments: from desert to arctic, tropical to Himalayan – and we welcomed healthcare professionals who had worked in all those areas to come and share their experiences and adventures.

Personally, I have found talking to these professionals to be immensely inspiring and attending previous SWMUK conferences has opened my eyes to the many paths that I can take as a doctor. Organising such an event allowed me to meet professionals, and professional bodies, from all manner of backgrounds and experiences. While not all of them could attend, I found that the act of communicating with these individuals and groups opens doors on both sides: they love to teach and pass on their experiences and advice, and we as students love to hear it. The bridges we have built with professional bodies across the country will serve our society well as a resource for speakers and instructors in the future – and them too, as a base for grassroots movements (such as the FPHC’s expedition medicine competencies matrix), feedback on teaching resources and a host of students keen to work in the ever-expanding field of wilderness medicine.

Lessons learnt

Hosting such an event comes with its challenges and throughout the 6-month process I learned and developed a number of new skills and traits:

Juggling – the number of moving parts in such an event cannot be understated and, due to the very nature of SWMUK, there were far more than in a regular conference. Through this we all learnt to prioritise tasks and predict obstacles in advance to ensure everything ran smoothly.

Mountaineering – climbing the mountain of background admin and paperwork is a thankless task and one which is sadly inherent to any event such as this. If anyone should consider hosting such an event in the future, be prepared for the amount of graft you are going to have to put in – the public won’t see it, but your inbox will!

Sharpening my pencil – when there are several different work-flows running concurrently with people working on different academic and personal timetables, it is important to get to the point by setting out clear tasks and instructions. In any team task, the value of efficient communication cannot be understated; a small team that communicates well can function like 10.

Cracking a smile – Sure, it will be hard and at times you may well doubt yourself, but at the end you will have given the student wilderness medicine community a fantastic event, made friends and built invaluable personal and professional relationships along the way and gained a unique experience yourself. Remember why you are doing this, why you love wilderness medicine and the phenomenal experience that you are going though and will carry with you.

All of this wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the Faculty of Pre-Hospital Care who offered invaluable advice and their wide range of speakers and workshop-leaders, as well as logistical support; the University of Nottingham School of Medicine and the CASCADE fund of University of Nottingham Alumni who generously gifted £1000 each. Without this financial and logistical support, we would have struggled to pull off what we did and the positive comments and feedback from our delegates reflects the direct impact this has had on our project.

I am so glad that my team and I took the plunge and hosted an event that brought together the wilderness medicine community; helped cement Nottingham’s place on the national stage; and formed strong bonds with professionals, professional-bodies and other universities across the country. For those considering hosting such an event in the future, I say go for it! Do not underestimate the challenge you have set yourself but absolutely go for it! This was a fantastic experience for myself and the rest of the committee and gave us the opportunity to work with some incredible people and groups who we would never otherwise have had the privilege to work with. As chairman of the committee, it offered me the chance to lead a team in organising an event on a national scale and balance the human and administrative factors involved therein. I can’t say it was an easy task, or that everything went as smoothly as we’d have liked (does it ever?) but it was a tremendous experience for us all and the feedback we received from those who attended was the icing on the cake.


Contributor: Neil Ganatra, Chairman of the SWMUK conference committee 2017  

Keen to get involved? SWMUK18 is being hosted by Liverpool www.swmuk2018.com. (see you there!)

Posted in Medicine