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International health specialists employ unique skills to build medical capabilities with partner nations

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Healthcare is a critical avenue to strengthen partnerships with U.S. allies around the globe. The Air Force International Health Specialist (IHS) program takes highly trained Air Force health personnel with unique skill sets, and puts them in Global Health Engagements (GHEs) around the world. There, they share their experiences and work to improve the health infrastructure in their partner nation.

“When most people think of GHEs, they mostly think of humanitarian work that involve long lines of people waiting to receiving treatment,” explained Lt. Col. Andrew Allen, GHE branch chief with the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa (USAFE-AFAFRICA).

GHEs do much more than that, with a long-term focus to improve the medical capabilities of partner nations. This can include everything from training medical personnel and working on an effective process for getting medical supplies on time, to developing a plan on how GHEs can help partner nations align their medical services with the U.S.

“Global health is increasingly understood as a strategic approach to health promotion and disease prevention beyond national interests,” said Col. Wesley Palmer, an Air Force physician and IHS program director. “To meet this need, the IHS program focuses on building medical capabilities through partnerships with countries in peacetime before they need assistance.”

Building and maintaining the health capabilities of partner nations is complex. IHS personnel must apply their health and military training to meet the specific needs of their assigned region. This involves aiding in patient movement, aeromedical capabilities, force health protection, expeditionary medical capabilities, and preparedness in disaster response. “In order to build those medical capabilities in our partner nations, IHSs work to organize military-to-military, as well as military-to-civilian health engagements between the United States and other countries,” said Maj. Khadidja Harrell, a pediatrician and IHS currently with Pacific Command.

The IHS program relies on exceptional Airmen with diverse medical backgrounds.

“We have 55 personnel assigned full-time at our commands responsible for the various regions across the globe,” said Palmer. “These personnel consist of both officers and enlisted from a wide variety of medical backgrounds such as physicians, dentists, nurses, medics, Public Health Officers, medical administrators, industrial hygienists, just to name a few.”

Airmen who qualify for the IHS program also have special skills, training, and experience that allow them to work in unfamiliar environments while respecting cultural differences.  Fully qualified IHSs have deployed operational experience and extensive language and cross-cultural skills. These skills are necessary for GHEs to be successful.

“It is not enough for Airmen to have a medical background,” said Palmer. “They also need to have specific skills that allow them to communicate in our partner nations. You cannot just go to another country and explain operations the same way you would in the U.S. You have to work with those nations to come up with solutions that make sense in that area.”

Working on a GHE assignment as an IHS has allowed for Airmen to apply their diverse skill-set and broaden their Air Force career. The program fulfills a critical role in supporting partnerships with U.S. allies while helping to build their medical capabilities.

“It is rewarding step out of the clinic to help another country develop their capabilities. I did not think this opportunity existed in the military before I learned about IHS,” said Harrell. “Every assignment where I have had to teach something, I learn something just as much from those partner nations. We are exchanging knowledge and learning from each other.”