Researching remote medicine from our own homes

Student group pictured on a field trip to the Brecon Beacons pre-Covid-19

Our BSc in Remote Medicine for intercalating medical students focuses on exploring medicine in remote and low-resource environments.

Normally students would have an opportunity to travel to the Nepali Himalayas to carry out a research project. With the expedition cancelled due to Covid-19, four remote medicine students discuss how they adapted their research projects.


Carmen

For my original research project, I chose to investigate sleep during an expedition to high altitude. Previous research has shown that human error is the leading cause of mountaineering accidents and at sea-level, sleep deprivation increases the risk of accidents due to human error. Therefore, my aim was to determine the contribution of the mountaineering environment to poor sleep and impaired cognitive performance on an expedition to altitude – using a reaction time application as a surrogate marker for cognitive function. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 the planned expedition to Nepal was cancelled and so I devised a pilot study to test the reaction time application I wanted to use at altitude remotely with a small group of participants simulating a night slept at altitude in their own homes.

Nathaniel

I have had a fantastic year intercalating in Remote Medicine; a highlight being taught by many inspirational specialists in the field. Before lockdown, I had planned to investigate the pathophysiology and prediction of acute mountain sickness by studying students’ retinas on our planned mountaineering expedition in Nepal. Just before the government announced the lockdown, my flatmates and I all left London to return home. This was quite a sad day and I found it a little difficult adjusting to studying at home with my parents. Since our research in Nepal was no longer possible, I changed my research project to a research proposal and was supervised through 1-1 online sessions.

Ben

Coming to study remote medicine at Imperial this year as an external intercalating student has been a fantastic experience. Joining such a great group of friendly and like-minded individuals has been fantastic with the whole cohort having built a strong group bond over the course of this year.

For my dissertation I was due to travel with the Remote Medicine expedition to the Nepali Himalayas. This was to be a highlight of the course and we had been working in lab groups to devise and adapt our experiments in the weeks leading up to the expedition. My project focused around the use of heart rate variability (HRV), ascertained from single lead ECG monitors and I intended to place the cardiac system under stress via the use of standardised exercise at increasing altitudes to investigate whether changes in HRV could predict those who would go on to develop acute mountain sickness at increasing altitudes. Unfortunately due to the COVID-19 pandemic the expedition was cancelled only days before departure. This was difficult for everyone on the team to take, especially for all the students who had planned extensive experiments and for Tamlyn who had put an incredible amount of time and effort into organising the trip.

My flatmates and I decided that with lockdown looming we did not want to be trapped in our flat in London. So we rushed out of the capital and returned home to move back in with our parents in the Yorkshire Dales. This had many benefits during the lockdown, with the countryside on the doorstep for regular runs, bike rides and dog walks but it did pose its challenges with both me and my sister writing our dissertations at the same time, whilst confined to the house.

Overall despite the disappointment of the cancelled expedition I have enjoyed my year at Imperial immensely. I have learnt a great deal and been taught by some fascinating individuals. I hope to apply the knowledge and skills I have developed to a career in academic medicine and hope to be able to travel to the Himalayas in the coming years to carry out similar research to that I originally planned.

Tom

My original project was looking at whether haemoglobin concentration and oxygen saturation linked with altitude sickness during a 3-week expedition in Nepal. I’d done a lot of research and was optimistic about the outcome, and then in swept COVID-19 and Nepal shut its borders. I switched to a research proposal and started remote meetings with a new supervisor. Doing a proposal for the first time was tough, especially doing it remotely; communication was slower and it was demotivating not seeing coursemates. On the bright side I stayed in London with my housemates and we made some lockdown adjustments: a darts board, poker nights, a PS4, and film-takeaway Sundays and now I don’t know if I want to change back.

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