by Alistair Carr

Humming and haring over the ranking of your SSC options – a familiar experience to most Glasgow medics. Come 4th year the choice is made harder due to the increased choice and variety. One of the more interesting choices is the Islay Remote & Rural SSC. Being of the belief that SSCs should be about challenging yourself and trying something a little bit different I took the plunge and ranked this one highly. This turned out to be a fantastic experience that I would encourage anyone with a keen sense of adventure and optimism to consider.

The SSC begins with a long journey. A scenic 4-hour coach ride from Glasgow, passing by what seems like most of Scotland’s lochs, will take you to Kennacraig. This is a ferry terminal on the Mull of Kintryre and from here a substantially sized ferry will take you on the 2-hour journey to this far flung part of the UK. You could also choose to get the 20-minute flight from Glasgow direct to Islay, however I think this doesn’t quite give justice the degree of remote and ruralness which you’re getting yourself into for the next 5 weeks.

For accommodation you are put up by Dr Kate Pickering, one of the lead GPs of Islay, who looks after you very well. Her house is located in Bowmore, a village of around 1,000 people which acts as the island’s capital. Accompanying me there were two other students; one from Peninsula on her elective and one from Dundee on her rural GP placement. Having the other students there in addition to the friendliness of the Islay medical staff made for a highly sociable atmosphere with rarely a dull moment.

From the outset you are assimilated into the healthcare team.  From helping out on the ward round of the 8 bed Bowmore hospital, to leading a consultation in one of Islay’s 3 GP practices, or clerking in a new A&E arrival – the breadth of clinical exposure and responsibility that you are given is vast. Spending time with the physios, OTs, district nurses and midwives will take you into patient’s homes, allowing you to see the effect that interventions have first-hand and to meet the residents of this rural island community. For anyone returning from an intercalated degree, as I was, I would recommend this SSC as a good re-introduction to clinical practice.

There’s more, however, to being a rural GP than clinical acumen.  Of almost equal importance to gaining the clinical skills and knowledge was the emphasis placed on getting stuck in to rural island life as much as possible. At times this was exhausting and lead to some awful hangovers, but it’s the mind set I think you have to adopt to get the most out of the unique opportunities that this SSC gives you.

During my 5-week stint there I visited five of the eight Islay distilleries, sampled the Islay Jazz Festival, went on some gorgeous walks, popped over to Jura for the music festival there, got to drive a boat, developed a strong liking for scallops and learned how to make bread.

“Islay time” is a concept you quickly become familiar with during this SSC. It refers to the slower pace of life in Islay relative to the mainland. And in many ways it felt like I was living in a picturesque post-card that was set several decades in the past. This is partly due to the wonderful scenery that the island has to offer, the sparseness of the population, and some very dodgy roads; but also due to the importance there of values which I feel have lost significance in urban life. In Islay most people know and look out for each other, the pub still plays a vital social role at the centre of the community, and most people have very manual jobs with the main industries being fishing, crofting and distilling.

As a doctor there it means you have the luxury of knowing most of your patients, you get a bit more time to see your patients and your patients have to wait less time to get an appointment. In addition, as the doctor, you are considered to be a valued member of the community with people generally being appreciative that you’ve chosen to live and work in their rural community despite the perceived negative perceptions that are associated with this.

In summary, this is a fantastic SSC that I would recommend strongly to pretty much anyone. If, however, you are not lucky enough to be one of the handful of students to go to Islay each year then fear not. A new society has been created that is here to help: GURRMS.

The Glasgow University Remote and Rural Medicine Society (GURRMS) was set up on my return from Islay by myself and a few friends. Our aim is to organising a remote and rural conference for undergrads, an idea had by Dr Pickering and myself after a glass of wine or two towards the end of my time there.

This initially daunting task has started to give way to an exciting program which we hope all students with an interest in trying something a bit different and opening your eyes to what rural medicine involves will be interested in. The conference will be about rural GP, pre-hospital medicine and transfer medicine. There will be some great speakers and workshops, refreshments and lunch, a formal dinner, and also a ceilidh. We’re also planning to organise some additional non-educational activities, such as hill walks and distillery trips, to make sure that you are able to sample island life to the full.

The conference will be located on Islay on Friday 10th March. It is open to all medical students from throughout the UK and has been timed to coincide perfectly with the end of finals for 4th and 5th year Glasgow students. Included as part of the conference will be; travel by coach and ferry from Glasgow, travel within Islay and three nights’ accommodation in Islay in either the Youth Hostel (we’ve booked out the whole youth hostel) or Islay GP houses.

Details of the conference will be advertised soon, but in the meantime follow us on twitter and give our Facebook page a like.So save the date, keep an eye out for further details, and we’ll see you in Islay!