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Dr Tanvir Jamil recommends starting planning early if you want to fit a sabbatical into your career plan

The timing for our sabbatical was perfect. My practice was stable, our children were young (five and three years) and my wife and I still had itchy feet. The key to arranging a sabbatical is to plan early ­ at least a year. Think about:

·how long?

·where?

·what are you going to do?

·locums

·expenses.

Most practice agreements will have a six-month sabbatical option. It is worth extending that to a year if you can. Time flies very quickly when you're out there.

We chose Canada as our destination because we'd been there previously and loved its great outdoors, wildlife, diversity and liveable cities. I decided to use and enhance some of the skills that I had already acquired as a trainer, especially communication and video analysis. I contacted the dean of family medicine at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. He invited me over for an interview.

We got on very well and he offered me a voluntary job (in other words not paid) at the department. My role would be to teach communication skills to general practice registrars using video analysis and act as a tutor in problem-based learning tutorials for medical students. The details would be arranged once I started but the offer was official ­ my title was 'visiting professor'.

Who will do your job while you're away?

Finding a locum can be difficult but my old registrar was happy to step in and did a great job. It's worth talking to your local group of registrars early to see if they may be interested in a long-term job. When I applied for my sabbatical in August 2003, prolonged study leave was still available from the Department of Health. This was worth almost £53,000 ­ to help cover locum costs. From April 2004 the funds have been devolved down to local PCTs. An average PCT now has funding for half a doctor to take prolonged study leave full-time for a year ­ about £20,000. So there is less money now, but it is still there to be claimed for your sabbatical.

The application process involves filling in a prolonged study leave form obtained from your director of postgraduate general practice education. The first part requires details of you, your practice and whether you have applied for prolonged study leave in the past. The second part covers three areas:

·expected benefit of the leave (to you, the practice, your district, the NHS)

·methods of dissemination of benefits to others

·details of courses, research and/or other educational activity you are planning.

Other paperwork required includes:

·a letter on headed notepaper confirming the dates of your attachment; holding an honorary post (such as 'visiting professor', 'clinical associate') may give your application more credibility

·CV

·prolonged study leave declaration from the practice: a letter from your partners agreeing to your leave and locum arrangements ­ signed by all partners

·prolonged study leave declaration from your health authority: a letter from your PCO agreeing to your leave and locum arrangements.

Your application is sent to the prolonged study leave panel. Expect to hear their decision in two to three months.

There wasn't much time left ­ about six months now ­ just about enough to sort out this lot:

·work permit (£75)

·children aged five years or older ­ study permit

·medical tests ­ CXR, VDRL, HIV (£150)

·embassies need two photos plus a photocopy of your passport

·driving licence ­ new photocard is useful in North America as ID

·rent out your house ­ inform mortgage and insurance companies

·flights, accommodation abroad, mail forwarding, health insurance, storage, cars (sell or keep?)

·registration and indemnity if seeing patients abroad

·arrange direct debits

·ensure sufficient funds in bank.

Having received prolonged study leave and collected my work permit from the Canadian Embassy ­ on the day we were about to leave ­ we arrived in Vancouver, a city carved out of the forest, built on peninsulas and divided by rivers, inlets and bays.

The Coastal mountains are to the North, the Pacific Ocean to the West and the Rockies to the East. The Canadians are friendly and welcoming and our 12-month stay was probably one of the best years we have ever had.

We skied, tobogganed, sailed, camped, hiked, biked, skated and walked around British Columbia and Alberta; froze in Alaska, walked on a glacier and learned to build an igloo; climbed a Mayan pyramid and topped up the suntan in Cancun; saw a grizzly bear, ate sockeye salmon and watched at midnight as Saturn revealed her rings. The kids went to school, my wife took French classes and I survived being the 'limey' visiting professor.

We were tempted to stay but family, friends and a pretty good job brought us home.

Now we're back it's as if we have never left. I'm not quite QOF'd out yet.

Tanvir Jamil was visiting professor at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver ­ he practises in Burnham, Buckinghamshire

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