Camp Doctors: Keeping Kids Healthy Away From Home

O Residential Camp

Summer camp conjures up idyllic images of kids enjoying sun-drenched afternoons sailing by the sea or hiking through the green glade of a mountain forest. And for those magical moments of summer fun to come true for young people, camp directors and medical personnel spend hours in preparation and on the job to create a safe and healthy medical environment at camp.

In order to be accredited by the American Camping Association, camps must meet specific criteria that ensures the health and safety of the campers in their charge. Most camps have on-site nursing staff members who are trained and equipped to attend to common minor emergencies, including cuts and bruises, poison ivy, beestings and viral illnesses. Increasingly, many sleepover camps, particularly those with sessions that last two to three weeks or longer, are choosing to have at least one physician on staff during the camping season.

“I really like having the assistance of the medical staff,” says Andrew Bell, a third-generation camp director at Camp Mondamin, a boys’ camp in Zirconia that was founded by Bell’s grandfather in 1922. “Our camp physicians help us develop training for our staff and protocols to help us take the best possible care of our campers. They know their stuff, and that really helps me in my job.”

On-site Doctors and Nurses

Camp Mondamin and its sister camp, Green Cove for girls, share an on-site camp physician who generally comes to camp for one to two weeks in the summer. While camp doctors are not typically paid for their services, they are often able to bring their families to camp and enjoy all of the camp’s activities during their stay.

In addition to the camp physician at Camp Mondamin and Green Cove, two nurses are on-site at each camp for the entire summer. “The nursing staff gives us continuity, and the medical staff gives us additional skills and expertise,” Bell says.

“We’re seeing an increased number of medications prescribed for our campers,” he says. “It’s very beneficial to us to have a doctor who can oversee prescribed medications and be there on-site if prescriptions need to be renewed or new medications need to be prescribed for an infection or other illness.”

Dr. Ed Spence, a pediatric specialist and assistant chairman at Levine Children’s Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, has worked as a camp doctor at Camp Seafarer, a girls’ camp in Arapahoe, for 13 years.

“Camp doctors actually do a lot off-season,” Spence says. “Some physicians who have been on staff for years work to set up protocols ahead of time for common illnesses and possible injuries so that the emergency procedures are in place before camp begins. We establish guidelines for what the nurses are to do, what physicians do and what procedures are to be followed in case of an emergency.”

Spence says there are so many different activities at Camp Seafarer, from swimming, sailing and motor-boating to horseback riding, they must “anticipate every possible situation so that we are prepared if something happens.”

Camp Seafarer and its brother camp, Camp Sea Gull for boys, each accommodate two or more physicians on-site who stay in cabins for one to two weeks all summer long. Both camps also employ several nurses who live at camp and work in the infirmary during the summer sessions.

Creating a Safer and Healthier Environment

Spence says camp doctors can also be instrumental in working with camp directors and year-round staff on broader issues that create a safer and healthier environment for campers.

“We push for healthier foods and help establish guidelines for counselors so they make sure their campers are drinking enough water, putting on adequate sunscreen and promoting safety in equipment and in activities,” he says.

Spence believes that having an on-site physician at a camp is especially beneficial if a child becomes seriously ill or injured while at camp. “We work very closely with nursing staff, but nurses don’t have the ability to provide certain medical services, so if physicians are at camp, they may be able to diagnose and treat a child, saving the parents the possible expense of a trip to the nearest emergency room.”

He also notes that in camps with longer sessions, gastrointestinal illnesses often occur and sweep through the camp’s population. “A camp physician can help ensure proper procedures are in place to prevent the spread of communicable diseases, and that makes camp a healthier place for everyone,” he says.

Creating a safe and healthy environment at summer camp is an ongoing process that needs constant review and occasional tweaking, Bell says. “Our health and safety measures are always being improved,” he says.

As a camp doctor, Ed Spence concurs with the need for continuing evaluation of health and safety standards. “Every year, our protocols are a little tighter and a little more robust,” he says. “As camp physicians, we are always trying to do a better job taking good care of the campers.”

For more information on health and wellness standards for accredited camps, go to

Katherine Kopp is a freelance writer and the mother of three daughters. Her husband, Vince, spent several summers working as a camp doctor and thoroughly enjoyed taking care of the kids and fishing in his free time.

For arts resources, browse our Camps Directories and Enrichment Directory, and check your city’s parks and recreational classes for youth. Read our feature, Kids Camp in Carolinas and Virginia Offer Unique Overnight Experiences.



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