Two doctors are permanently stationed on the base and one of these needs to have surgical skills. I did not have to use mine. The work itself is mainly duties within general medicine including health certificates and other administrative reports. There were no emergencies the month I was there. The closest was a call from a captain on a Lufthansa flight located right over the North Pole where a patient had abdominal pain. In the end it was decided that emergency landing at the base was not indicated. Though not part of the health care system in Greenland, Thule Air Base doctors and authorities will nevertheless assist with medical evacuations from nearby Qaanaaq if needed.
As a Doctor you are provided with a car. And you have to pass a driving test at the base. I had a small apartment within the medical building/hospital ward, and we had no admissions during my time there. There is a small convenience store. The Top of the World Club (a bar/restaurant). And a fitness center. I was on Thule Air Base in August. The sun was never down and I covered the windows by plastic foil during the night.
The scenery is spectacular with approximately 20 km road to drive on outside the base. I visited the Thule Radar. And despite many visits to Greenland, this is the only time I have actually been standing on the Inland Ice. I climbed the iconic Dundas mountain, visited the old Dundas inuit village. And lastly, I visited Alert, the Canadian base only 817 km from the North Pole.
68 people live here. There is a school, church and small library, all combined in one building. The doctor visits every 3 months. Health services in these very small settlements are provided by a health assistant, employed for a couple of hours a day, and with only a couple of weeks training. Thus all health issues are normally discussed either by phone or telemedicine with Qaanaaq. Siorapaluk is connected with Qaanaaq by twice-weekly helicopter flights.
It is February. Windy and below minus 30 degrees Celsius. We travel with two snow-scooters over the frozen fiords. We bring rifles in case we encounter a polar bear on our way over the frozen fiords. We wear special polar suits including protection glasses. The sun is not up at this time of year, so everything is dark with a shimmer of light. I have no idea about the direction we are taking and have to trust the local driver. In this hostile environment, it only takes one wrong turn and we will never be seen again.
We leave Qaanaaq at 7am and arrive in Siorapaluk a couple of hours later. With me is an assistant nurse, who also doubles as interpreter, and we do as much as we possibly can in a very long day. I see all the children. Vaccinations are brought up to date. Dental status is checked. In fact I end up seeing most of the inhabitants and those not on the list turn up queuing at the door once the rumor had spread of our arrival.
A 25-year old Japanese man happened to pass by this place 40 years ago in search for extreme wilderness. He never left, and founded a family there. His reputation as a hunter is widespread. I was looking to buy a polar fox and went to his storage facility in the basement of his house. He immediately apologized, he did have polar foxes, however they were brown and not white. The white were sold out as confirmation season was approaching.
So far north, the sun is permanently down between November and February, and permanently up between June and August. Temperatures in winter may drop to below minus 50 degrees Celsius. We are too far north for the Northern lights. It is an arctic desert, with little, if any snow even in winter. The Qaanaaq fiord is frozen 9 of 12 months and only a couple of ships a year pass by with supplies, the last one in August. Trucks drive out on the frozen fiord to collect chunks of icebergs, which supply Qaanaaq with drinking water during the Arctic Winter. You are the only doctor here. The next settlement on the Coast is Upernavik, 1:30 hours south by plane, one plane a week.
I have worked as a doctor in Qaanaaq in 2006 and 2013.
07:30 It is January. The middle of the Arctic Winter. While the sun is never up, it is not pitch dark all day, as reflections of light shimmers over the flat mountains. Some have depressions in this eternal darkness. I think it is wonderful. I have an entire house at my disposition, right next to the hospital. First I empty my toilet bag (there is no cloacal system here) and place it outside the house to be collected. It is minus 35 degrees Celsius. After a quick coffee I run the 200 meters to the hospital.
08:00 Morning meeting at the hospital. It is Wednesday, surgery day. Thursday is for vaccinations, Tuesdays for examining children. Today we have two abortions scheduled. If I was not able to perform them, they would have been sent down south to Upernavik or Ilullissat.
09:00 Patient consultations begin: Two patients present with a common cold. One needs his diabetes controlled. One child presents with a rash. I need an interpreter for the majority of the consultations, as especially the younger patients do not readily speak Danish. 3 patients per hour are booked. While this may not seem a lot, the lack of prior knowledge of the patients as well as the need of translation makes it appropriate.
09:30 A hunter has been out on the ice-edge, hunting for walrus. They caught one and ate some raw meat. Now he feels weird. Could it be trichinosis? I have to look it up in the text book.
10:00 I administer a paracervical blockade, and the two abortions are performed without problems.
11:00 The consultations continue: One patient presents with tendinitis. He is a hunter, and it comes from holding the reins of the dog-sledge.
12:00 Lunch break: The nurse told me that a helicopter from Thule Air Base had just landed and brought eggs. There have not been any eggs in Qaanaaq for two weeks. I run down to the supermarket Pilersuisoq, where 15 boxes of eggs are left. I took two. I check the rest of the store out: Well stocked with dry and canned foods. Dairy products and vegetables are frozen.
13:00 Visit to the retirement home. The lack of continuity is a problem, a new doctor comes every 1-3 months. I do not know the patients but try my best together with the leading nurse to go through and update all the prescriptions.
15:00 The visiting psychiatrist is here for her yearly visit. The secretary tries to get hold of all the villagers referred for psychiatric consultation. This includes arranging transport for those living in the smaller settlements around Qaanaaq: If they don´t make it this week, they have to wait a whole year until the next visit.
15:30 Off duty. It is minus 25 degrees Celsius now. I walk the 50 metes down the hill to the public library and shuffle through the books. There is a an interesting new book out on Knud Rasmussen, signed by the author. Knud Rasmussen is well remembered here in Qaanaaq and his sledge from the Thule expeditions can be seen in the Qaanaaq museum, the building itself being his old trade station (Thule Trade Station) moved up to Qaanaaq from Dundas.
Greenland is a former Danish colony, now attached to Denmark via bilateral agreement. The population is 56.000. The majority of the island is covered by The Inland Ice, a massive icecap with villages and communities are dotted along the coastline, with no roads connecting any of them. I have worked locums on the coast in Greenland regularly since 2004 in the following places: Qaanaaq (twice), Narsaq, Paamiut, Nanortalik and Thule Air Base.
Organization of the health care system in Greenland
Nuuk is the largest city with 17000 inhabitants and Queen Ingrids Hospital (DIH). The DIH is equivalent to a provincial hospital and provides basic functions in surgery and medicine. More specialized functions such as vascular, thoracic and neurosurgery, as well as interventional cardiology and burns treatment are transferred to Denmark.
The doctors on the coast are normally general practitioners, however doctors from other specialties may be employed if they have sufficient experience within general medicine. In some of the larger villages, one of the 3-4 doctors should have surgical skills, mainly for Cesarean sections.
As a doctor on the Coast, you perform all medical duties, the majority being within the field of general medicine. Every village has a hospital-health center, where all consultations and examinations take place and, if needed, patients are admitted. Minor surgery, such as abortions, may be performed depending on the local competences. Furthermore, smaller remote settlements in the area are visited on a regular basis. After normal day duty one of the doctors will be on call. If there is only one doctor you will then be on call all the time. The staff are generally very competent and used to dealing with most emergencies. Most emergencies during the night are related to alcohol and violence including medical examinations prior to detention placement, at the request of the police.
The generalists on the Coast have a close collaboration with the specialists in Nuuk: For non-urgent cases an online referral system and for emergency cases a doctor is on call within each specialty.
Furthermore, specialists visit the Coastal communities on a regular, often yearly basis: Ophtalmologists, orthopedic surgeons, psychiatrist etc. As dental health is a major issue, dentists are present in all, but the very smallest communities.
At the coast level, basic examinations such as X-ray and standard blood analyses may be performed. Further investigations take place either in Nuuk or at the yearly specialists visit. Emergencies may be transferred to Nuuk with a chartered plane.
The doctor is either employed directly by Greenlandic authorities or via an agency. As I understand it, you need a Danish authorization to work in Greenland. For Scandinaves, the authorization is easily transferable, for other EU citizens some language tests may be requested. However dispensations may be given. It is a huge challenge for the health system to employ doctors in Greenland and many positions are covered as short-term locums. Also in Nuuk there may occasionally be a lack of certain specialists.
The challenges for a medical doctor are both medical and cultural and often a mix between the two:
The level of spoken Danish is quite low among young people, problematic in terms of education as all diplomas above primary school-level require good knowledge of Danish. A translator is needed in approximately half of all medical consultations. Now, several educations (police officer, nurse, teacher etc) are offered in Nuuk (as opposed to having to travel to Denmark), but still Nuuk is far away from many villages. In Greenland there is a tendency to live in the present, rather than by the European style of long-term planning. Thus many young people renounce on an education preferring to stay with their families. Generally speaking, one section of the inuit population seems to stay behind in the small communities while the other section often moves from smaller settlements to Nuuk or even Denmark. This pattern leads to a depopulation of smaller settlements and creates social challenges. As an outsider, it is very difficult to get genuine insight into inuit, though the people are incredibly friendly.
The disease pattern in Greenland differs quite significantly from the European mainland as outlined below:
While the incidence of hypopharynx cancer is increased, possibly related to viral infections, lung cancer is by far the most common cancer, related to a high incidence of smokers.
Due to the relative isolation down through the centuries, certain genetic diseases are endemic for Greenland such as Cholestasis familiaris Groenlandica and propionemia. Both may now be detected via pre-natal screening. Iridocyclitis and primary angleclosure glaucoma also appear more frequently in Greenland.
Greenland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, and almost every Greenlandic citizen knows someone who took their own life. Special task forces/initiatives have been launched to battle the problem.
The transition from traditional inuit lifestyle towards a Western lifestyle and diet predictably has led to an increase in the lifestyle-associated diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular). Lactose intolerance is relatively common.
Living conditions – as a doctor you are provided with either a house or an apartment with modern facilities, heating, kitchen, shower, hot water, television. In a few communities there are no cloacal systems so toilets are emptied via a bag (Ittoqottormiit, Qaanaaq).
Daily amenities – All settlements has at least one supermarket with basic items, loads of canned and dry foods. Transport is by ship and in remote places only two ships pass every year. Brædtet is a place where local fishermen sell their catch.
Geographical considerations: There are no roads connecting the settlements and villages in Greenland meaning all transport is by air. Often weather prevents helicopters flying and people may get stuck on the way for days.
Weather: From the Arctic desert of Qaanaaq, where minus 40 degrees Celsius is common during the Arctic Winter to the milder climates in the South resembling Southern Norway. The Polar Circle runs approximately through Kangerlussuaq.
Transport: The only all-year international airport is Kangerlussuaq, an old American naval base with flights to/from Copenhagen. Narsarsuaq (for Southern Greenland) is open in Summer. East Greenland may be reached directly from Iceland. From Kangerlussuaq and Narsarasuaq a mix of planes (Dash-7 or Dash-8) or helicopters then depart to the final destination on the coast. Due to the often changing weather conditions delays are common and may last a week if not more.
Outdoor activities: The scenery is unique and spectacular every where. However I have mainly worked in villages where I was the only doctor, thus I could not venture outside the village except in exceptional circumstances.