Medical care gets better through research

  • Published
  • By J.D. Levite
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Air Force Medical Service advancements largely come from research, whether from emerging technologies or the application of new knowledge and ideas. Research helps to usher in new capabilities to the AFMS and puts concepts into practice.

Lawrence Mitchell from the AFMS Research team said, “Research is driven by the warfighter. The major commands and military treatment facilities identify what capabilities they lack and what they need. We figure out how best to fill the gap they’ve identified with new ideas and concepts. Whether that means, for instance, knowledge, which brings a new clinical practice guideline or a widget that helps you measure oxygen on a patient in higher altitudes.”

The different projects and tests involved in research aren’t always perfect, though. Many times research fails to produce a usable product, but that doesn’t mean it was a waste.

Mitchell said researchers use systems like the Defense Technical Information Center to record everything they’ve done, even the failures, so new research in the same area can head in a different, possibly more productive, direction.

“You have to have the information on past failures so you can try to get to successes,” he said. “Those gaps identified by the warfighter still remain even when research fails. You have to re-engage.”

Mitchell said the majority of the work they do is executed by two platforms – the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and the 59th Medical Wing, Joint Base San Antonio, Texas.

Mitchell said one of the major focuses of research today is transporting patients from one environment to another.  

“If a service member is injured in Afghanistan, we will take them to Landstuhl (Regional Medical Center). We will transport that person to the United States. We will keep that patient alive and monitor all their vital signs. That ‘care in the air’ piece is our major role.”

The 59th Medical Wing focuses on improving en route care and clinical care among other things. Mitchell said they look at everything from diabetes and hearing loss to “research on integrated medicine and more holistic type modalities that minimize pain.”

Mitchell said they use other MTFs sometimes as well because they all provide research proposals. They also outsource a lot of research.

“The medical community and the research community are much bigger than just the Air Force,” he said. “We have a limited pool of resources, so we make the best decisions possible for those dollars. Sometimes contracting that research out is the best way to do it.”

A few examples of this type of outsourcing that has led to current testing are cellular toxicity research, which measures how many toxins Airmen are inhaling where they work, and microbubble oxygenation technology, which could be a way to deliver oxygen rapidly to patients that need it in emergency situations.

“The transition back to the Air Force is how we gain from that,” he said. “That’s the thing about outsourcing. You may have to help someone else a little bit to bring forward a capability that’s phenomenal.”

Mitchell believes there will always be a need for newer and better research in the AFMS. He said the last few years have led to a huge amount of innovations and procedures that didn’t exist before.

He said, “Research itself, the need for a clinician or a provider to take better care of their constituency, whether it’s on the battlefield or in the clinic, will drive what we see in the future.”