This is not the career path I set out to practice when I left medical school; in fact, it’s a career path that didn’t even exist. But after making a number of lifestyle choices this is where I find myself today. I am sitting writing this article from the hot, tropical lowlands of Colombia, on the site of Pablo Escobar’s Hacienda where, in a few hours, I will run my next 3-hour telemedicine clinic seeing patients back in British Columbia, Canada.
I graduated from medical school in the U.K., and after completing my residency, my husband and I emigrated to B.C., Canada, where I ran a family practice for 12 years. We became tired of the cold winters and to emulate a lot of my retired patients; we bought a travel trailer and “snowbirded” south to California for the winter. I was 38, and my husband 41. In 2016, a patient informed me they had seen a doctor online; I had never heard of such a thing. I researched this and promptly made this technology available for my family patients, so they could continue to see me while I wintered in California the following year. It wasn’t hugely popular and took a lot of time to set up my elderly, less tech-savvy, patients. Finding myself with time on my hands, I contacted a virtual walk-in telemedicine clinic in Canada and asked if I could start working remotely for them while I was in California. Within two days I was seeing patients and earning good money, while providing a valuable service to the patients of B.C., many of whom have problems accessing primary care physicians, due to a shortage of family physicians (700,000 people, 15 percent B.C. population have no G.P.) or because they live or work in very isolated remote communities.
After returning from California that winter, we decided to make a huge life change. We sold our house and most of our possessions; I closed my practice, we bought a self-sufficient expedition vehicle with the intention of spending the next five years driving around the world. We hit the road on January 1, 2018 (aged 42 and 46), and we’ve been driving ever since. We are currently in country number 13, Colombia, South America.
My plan was to continue to practice telemedicine while in the USA, but I expected after that connectivity would be unreliable and, therefore, not possible to continue working. Well, I was very wrong. For the last 25 months, I have worked a regular schedule of 10-12 hours a week from the road. I run my clinics from inside my camper, in every sort of geographical location possible — beaches, deserts, jungles, indigenous Mayan villages, and even at over 14,000 feet up snow-capped mountains. I mostly rely on my cell phone data, it’s astonishing where you can find a signal. My cellphone functions as a hotspot, allowing my laptop to access the internet. I use, on average, about 25 to 30 GB of data a month. Data is cheap in the majority of the countries (in Colombia, I buy 4 GB for $6). Another trick is to buy a SIM card for every carrier in the country, ensuring cell coverage even in most small and remote villages, which may only have a cell tower for one network. The SIM cards are cheap too; usually, around $1 and are sold in just about every “tienda” in town.
My husband is non-medical and runs a successful endurance sports coaching company from the road. Setting up training programs for athletes in Canada, the U.S., and Europe.
We plan to spend another two or so years traveling down to Ushuaia, Patagonia, and I will continue to practice telemedicine along the way. From there, we plan to ship our vehicle to Africa, then into Europe, through the Middle East, Central Asia, Russia, China, Mongolia, India, Nepal, South East Asia, and finally Australia. This trip will likely take us around ten years, far more than the initial predicted five years, but we’re traveling slow and seeing as much of this beautiful world as we can. I am more than able to cover all travel and living expenses by working these few hours a week, so there are no financial restrictions on the amount of time we can travel.
Another interest of mine, while we travel (apart from learning Spanish, running, and rock climbing), is to do medical humanitarian work as we travel. In July 2019, I worked for five weeks in a medical clinic, in a very poor, rural area of Nicaragua, and in December, I worked with a fantastic, American NGO called MedGlobal on the border of Venezuela and Colombia providing free medical care to the Venezuelan refugees.
So it now seems that it is possible to be a digital nomad physician and travel the world while practicing medicine.
Claire Young is a physician and can be reached at This Big Road Trip.
Image credit: Claire Young