FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- As Air Force Medicine continues to go through organizational change, the MAJCOM Surgeons are hard at work, playing a pivotal role in the Air Force’s ability to stay on the leading edge of Trusted Care healthcare. This month we sat down with Air Education and Training Command’s Surgeon, Col. (Dr.) Gianna R. Zeh, to discuss ongoing improvements, how medical Airmen can succeed, and her personal journey as a leader.
Col. Zeh is the Command Surgeon at Headquarters Air Education and Training Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas. She leads a staff of military and civilian healthcare experts, providing strategic planning, policy assessment, and resource management for AETC’s 13 medical treatment facilities, which employ in excess of 10,000 individuals serving more than 500,000 beneficiaries. She advises the AETC Commander on all health-related matters, including the transition of MTFs into the Defense Health Agency. Col. Zeh also allocates and plans for the use of combined operations and maintenance, military personnel, and TRICARE contracts totaling more than $6 billion. She is responsible to the AETC Commander and the Air Force Surgeon General for the education and training of Air Force personnel in all medical career fields.
Dr. Zeh, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and share your personal and professional perspectives on Air Force life and military medicine.
A. It’s my pleasure. Thank you for using your platforms to help us communicate with Airmen and our patients.
Q. How do you support the mission and readiness of AETC and its Airmen?
A. Air Education and Training Command recruits, trains, and educates Airmen, forming the foundation of their Air Force careers. AETC students come from the Total Air Force, but also from Joint U.S. and allied forces. AETC medics are responsible for ensuring new Airmen are medically cleared for duty. We medical clear aircrew through flying class physicals, as well as Special Warfare Airmen. There would be no forces to present to Combatant Command commanders without AETC.
AETC medics are also instructors. We are, for example, integral to curriculum for firefighters at Goodfellow Air Force Base, as well as all pilot training platforms. AETC accomplishes specific medical readiness training through the Master Resilience Trainer Course. The courses supported include the Expeditionary Medical Readiness Course, Expeditionary Medical Support, Aeromedical Evacuation Patient Staging, Ground Surgical Team Phase 2, and decontamination training.
As the first Major Command to touch the lives of nearly every Airmen, our goal is to align the passions of our students with their talents in order to meet Air Force mission requirements. To us, Air Force students are our heroes, and we are their guides. We help identify their knowledge gaps and develop their skills so they are able to execute the Air Force mission. We like to think of our mission as igniting students’ passions so they can reach their target.
Q. The Air Force Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg, has stressed many times that innovation is crucial for the Air Force. How has AETC ensured medical Airmen are equipped with the necessary skills and tools to deliver care in increasingly challenging environments?
A. Exciting innovations are happening in AETC. You may have heard that pilot training just graduated a group of Airmen in an experimental class called Pilot Next, a program using the strengths of virtual reality and self-paced instruction. In the medical field we are also evaluating our teaching methods to provide the best education and training possible. We continue to understand that students learn faster and better through a variety of non-traditional methods. We are benchmarking and exploring evidence-based practices to improve training.
In AETC, Phase I of the Continuum of Learning introduced learning via four pathways: modular, blended, on-command, and competency based. We need to provide courses and material that are readily available to Airmen. Our goal is to have their whole career educational milestones mapped out and available when and where they want it. Phase 2 of the Continuum of learning is about where the training will be documented or housed. It addresses how to use the analytical data from training to better inform leaders if the training is meeting the intent. We are embarking on Phase 3 of the Continuum of Learning, which addresses how our Airmen learn, also called cognitive thinking processes.
Q. Why is the Trusted Care culture important in Air Force Medicine? Can you expand on the Trusted Care principle “Duty to Speak Up”?
A. I’m excited to be part of a High Reliability Organization focused on zero harm. Over the last several years we have cultivated an environment where it’s everyone’s duty to speak up. I have personally witnessed Airmen speaking up when something is not right. Because of this, our data reflects a downward trend in serious safety events. Trusted Care starts with creating a culture where everyone has the responsibility to say something when standardized processes are not followed and potential harm could occur, or when someone thinks of a better process. The Air Force Medical Service has come a long way, and we need to encourage this momentum as the journey of zero harm continues.
Q. Was there a moment in your career when you felt your readiness as an Airman, and your medical capabilities, really came together?
A. My deployment in 2015 as the Task Force Med-A commander and Craig Hospital commander at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, aligned my medical capabilities, leadership skills, and readiness. Directing trauma care for all of Afghanistan, and then connecting the aeromedical evacuation mission to move the appropriate patients in a timely manner, was impactful and gave me insight into how the whole aeromedical evacuation system worked collectively to save troops injured downrange. Understanding the complexity and infrastructure that goes into that system today made me realize that preparing for the next war, potentially a war between great powers, may require us to hold patients closer to the front line longer, as well as move them more quickly via Critical Care Air Transport Teams. We will have to remain vigilant about currency for all these teams in order to ensure medical successes.
Q. What is one thing you would say to today’s young medics as they navigate all the changes taking place in military medicine?
A. I would tell them to be lifelong learners. Always hunger for knowledge, and live a life of continuous learning. Having a sense of purpose will get us through these times of change in Air Force Medicine.
Q. Can you give some advice to others hoping to someday be a command surgeon?
A. My advice is to raise your hand when a leadership position presents itself. There are so many opportunities available, and we need great leaders. We need you! Always be learners! Be open to deferring to expertise, while at the same time never be afraid to speak up. Always listen to the Airmen on the frontlines…it’s usually the place with the most important voice.