At the forefront of mountain medicine

The work of the UIAA Medical Commission is respected and recognized throughout the world of mountaineering. The Commission’s mission of increasing knowledge about mountain medicine among doctors, mountaineers and lay mountain users is achieved through several different means.

In order to provide the best possible advice through its network of doctoral-level mountain medicine experts, the UIAA Medical Commission produces extensive advice and recommendation papers (translated in several languages and aimed at all types of mountain users), organizes the international Diploma in Mountain Medicine and disseminates in-depth, research articles related to specific medical subjects. The most recent was dedicated to ‘Drug Use and Misuse in the Mountains’.

George Rodway, member of the American Alpine Club, succeeded David Hillebrandt as Commission President earlier this year (David is now Commission Vice President) and shares with us more details about the Commission’s work and its plans for the near future.

UIAA. Can you tell us a little about your professional background and relationship with the mountain world?

George Rodway: I grew up in the Midwestern USA, a long way from any proper mountains. We had 15-20 metre rock cliffs though, and plenty of forests, so I developed an appreciation of the outdoors early in life. I had my first introduction to what I would call “real” mountains at about 15 or 16 years, and by 20 I was into it pretty seriously, doing remote stuff in Alaska by that time.  Health care is a second career for me, as I was a secondary school science teacher for a number of years. But I’m still a teacher, just as a university professor now. I came up in health care as a paramedic and advanced-practice nurse before I did my doctorate. I still practice a bit, but teaching and research is largely what I do now.

UIAA. How long have you been part of the UIAA MedCom and what inspired you to lend your support and become part of the Commission?

GR. I became the Vice-President of the UIAA MedCom in 2011 and was active as a USA representative a few years prior to that. I felt it was (and is) important for the US to have a visible presence in the Commission. Moreover, endeavoring to keep people healthy and out of trouble in the hills is the bigger reason for my participation with the MedCom.

UIAA. How would you define the role and responsibilities of the UIAA MedCom President?

GR. I would say communication and coordination largely sums up the role. That is, communicating with MedCom members about any number and variety of MedCom-related agenda items and coordinating the “plan of attack” on how to best accomplish the work at hand – be it writing papers for publication, providing medical advice directly to people going to the mountains, helping MedCom members or others organize mountain medicine courses.

George Rodway address delegates at the 2016 UIAA General Assembly

George Rodway addresses delegates at the 2016 UIAA General Assembly

UIAA. Which international medical bodies does the Commission work with?

GR. We have a very close relationship with the MedCom of the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR), as we complement one another rather well. The UIAA MedCom primarily aims to inform and educate the mountain-goer so that they stay out of trouble, while ICAR MedCom primarily concentrates on mountain rescue (i.e., when the mountain-goer isn’t so successful at staying out of trouble). Many of us on the MedCom also regularly attend the meetings of mountain medicine societies such as the International Society for Mountain Medicine and the Wilderness Medical Society.

UIAA. What are the main activities of the Commission today?

GR. In line with what I mentioned earlier, producing basic mountain medicine guidelines for the lay climbing public as well as scientific papers for physicians and other health care professionals; providing medical advice directly to people going to the mountains; helping MedCom members or others organize mountain medicine courses throughout the world, and helping to administer the international Diploma in Mountain Medicine.

UIAA. What are the main challenges the Commission faces?

GR. The outstanding challenges are, I think, related to trying to improve our penetration of countries around the globe where climbing and mountaineering has started to become quite popular yet there is still a lack of infrastructure to fully support widespread basic education about mountain medicine and/or other safety-related mountain practices.

UIAA. The MedCom advice and recommendation documents are very well received. Why are these advice documents so important, who are they principally aimed at, and how are they created? Why is it fundamental people travelling to the mountain areas have access to this information?

GR. Each MedCom advice document is created by a number of collaborating MedCom members (i.e., co-authors). They are important because, even in this high-tech information age, basic, accurate, accessible, and user-friendly mountain medicine information is not always easy to obtain. Ignorance of the basics re: mountain-related medical problems hurts and kills far too many mountain trekkers and climbers every year around the world.

UIAA. Are there any new recommendations in the pipeline?

GR. An advice sheet on how to deal with diabetes in the mountains is in the works right now. Lots of relevant changes in the medical management of diabetes have occurred since the MedCom last broached this topic.

UIAA. The international Mountain Medicine diploma is another key initiative. What are its objectives and benefits and are there areas of the world where interest is currently very strong?

GR. This program is aimed at medical professionals who want to learn more about how to apply their medical skills in austere, technical, mountain environments. It has been quite popular everywhere in the world that it currently has a presence. There are certainly some differences from country to country in how the Diploma is run, but all programs share a standardized core curriculum that is consistent across the globe. The Diploma got its start in continental Europe some two decades ago, but in the past few years interest has really exploded  – Japan, Nepal, Canada, Scandinavia, and the USA are examples of relatively new programs. And while it didn’t “arrive” in the USA until 2011, we now have three independently run Diploma in Mountain Medicine programs across the country.

Further details on the UIAA and its work in Mountain Medicine click here.