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Senior mentors volunteer to help young doctors in unique situations

  • Published
  • By J.D. Levite
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Even the smallest military treatment facilities need doctors, nurses and technicians trained in a variety of specialties, but it’s not always easy to give them the exact support they need.  The Small Hospital Clinical Skills Enhancement Program is designed to ensure those smaller facilities still provide the best possible quality care, and a key part of that program is the senior mentor rotation.

The program takes experienced Air Force leaders in medical specialties such as general surgery and OB-GYN and sends them to a smaller hospital for a few months. These specialists, who have years of experience under their belts, offer advice to younger doctors dealing with unique situations for the first time.

“We have a lot of young providers in our smaller overseas hospitals,” said Col. Gregory York, who oversees the SHCSE Program. “We put them in a situation where they’re on their own, and in most cases they should be able to conquer any challenges. The senior mentor has that ‘gray-haired judgment’ and has seen a lot of the things younger providers are getting ready to see. They can help tackle even simple problems like saving time.”

Col. Richard Standaert is a general surgeon with more than 30 years of experience who volunteered to be part of the program. He went to Aviano Air Base, Italy, for three months to work with the surgeon there.

“What I brought to the table was my experience, my leadership, and my ability to mentor,” Standaert said. “We developed a relationship that has continued since because she’s out there on her own. No one else shares those responsibilities. I can help her access people stateside and answer questions as they arise.”

For Standaert, it was obvious he wasn’t there to share the workload. He said she is a great surgeon, but his presence allowed her to catch up on training and get access to other specialties for the more difficult cases.

“Specifically, in her case, she’s thinking about leadership, going the command route,” he said. “I’ve done that. I’ve been there. So this gives her the opportunity to see what that would be like and ask me questions about it.”

Col. Melinda Henne also went to Italy as part of the program, but her specialty is in OB-GYN and it was a different experience for her.

“I was completely embedded in their clinical schedule so I could not just observe but also experience what the OB-GYN providers were experiencing, know what their training was, and know what their support was like,” Henne said.

She said this method gave her an objective way to observe things like safety, quality, and efficiency, and helped them improve. Small facilities like the one she was at do not have the same backup or support a larger hospital might have. In an OB-GYN setting, providers are stretched thin and don’t have a lot of downtime since they’re always on alert.

“In the world of OB-GYN you have to have 24/7 availability for deliveries and you have to have a backup provider if you need to do a C-section or something similar,” Henne said. “I did provide some input in how they could be more creative in scheduling to allow more downtime, recovery and resiliency time.”

Despite the long hours and hard work, Henne considers the experience a good one.

“I have always had an interest in education. It’s not for everybody. It was hard, but if this program had started a few years ago it could have been my dream job.”

York said the senior mentor rotation is only a small part of the much larger SHCSE project, but it’s all meant to do the same things: improve quality, care, and patient safety.

“We’re trying to do a lot of different, small things that overall have the same goals,” York said. “When you put all of those small parts of the project together, hopefully there’s a big effect in the end.”

He said the program has been received well since that first pilot program in Italy. Another group of senior mentors has traveled to Misawa Air Base, Japan, and leadership will decide how the program should be advanced after that rotation is completed.

Any senior lieutenant colonel or colonel who wishes to get involved in this program and are clinically active in one of the medical specialties the program is looking for can volunteer by talking to their specialty consultant.