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Women leaders say military health care offers limitless opportunities

Image of an Airman giving a presentation.

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Anita Fligge, deputy assistant director, education and training, and chief nursing officer at the Defense Health Agency, addresses Recovery Care Coordinators on serving in the military, Dec. 11, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Formal mentoring programs exist for women in the military, but the need for ad hoc networking, personal communication, and informal mentoring still appear to be the strongest threads among female military health care professionals.

During National Women's Month, we highlight some of these leaders' opinions.

"There is more cognizance now for women early in their career to have that mentorship and sponsorship," said Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Terry Adirim. "As we get more senior, we develop other networks and relationships, so women won't have to struggle" as much as they did when she graduated from medical school 30 years ago.

"Surround yourself with people who will lift you up, not put you down," Adirim advised.

An emergency care pediatrician by training, Adirim now has a distinguished career in her field and in academia; and has been a senior Department of Defense official in different positions for several administrations.

U.S. Army Col. (Dr.) Dana Nguyen, chair of the Department of Family Medicine at the Hebert School of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, said women should seek out informal networks.

"Even though there are more formal mentorships and networks for women in military medicine, the best are the informal networks and opportunities to share stories, share feelings and reactions and help plan the way forward," and not just in military medicine, she said, but within their local communities as well. "There is more emphasis on whole-person well-being."

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ruth Brenner, a preventive medicine physician and deputy chief of the Immunization Healthcare Division, Defense Health Agency Public Health Division, cited the "numerous women physician-leaders I have encountered along the way who serve as a collective guiding light for me as my career progresses. They proved to me that a successful work-life balance was attainable."

Discussing what advice to give young women in a military health care field, U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Anita Fligge, deputy assistant director, education and training, and chief nursing officer at the DHA, said: "To me, it's such a great opportunity; it has limitless opportunities to serve and grow professionally." She added: "Keeping an open mind and seeking out challenges, setting stretch goals, makes you grow as an officer, a health care professional and a person."

Fligge is responsible for 75 professional development and enlisted medical education programs across two institutes that train more than 308,000 DOD and international students annually.

U.S. Army Col. Audra Taylor, division chief, DHA Armed Service Blood Program, said young women and girls looking into health care careers in the military "should follow their passion and go for it. The ability to explore and research different careers and pathways is at their fingertips."

"I would advise that they do their homework, ask questions, and seek out a mentor in their desired career field and push forward."

Taylor has established herself with a strong record of leadership and experience within the blood banking community as well as with civilian counterparts, according to a June 2019 profile by AABB - formerly known as the American Association of Blood Banks - which is dedicated to advancing transfusion medicine and biotherapies.

IHD's Brenner said: "In the military, the camaraderie is unparalleled. The adventure is not easily matched. There are challenges, but they are surmountable," she said. "Your military medicine career is what you make of it with no limits on the places you go or the things you can achieve. In military medicine, the sky is the limit."

Women medical leaders explained how they joined up not only to help people but also for the challenge of a career in the military community.

"I wanted to help people, but I also wanted to be challenged," Brenner said. "I wanted to find a career where I would always be learning, always be on my toes, and always be proud of my work.

"My career brings me tremendous pride," she said, "because of the patients whose lives I am entrusted. They are superheroes. Can you imagine helping get Captain America or Wonder Woman back on his/her feet after an illness or injury? That is what military physicians do."

All agreed there are continuing issues globally with access to care and disparities in care in the military health field and the civilian health sector.

Speaking as a family physician, Nguyen said she is "worried that the military is not strategically looking to the future" due to proposed reductions in military medicine manpower and scope of practice.

"They are young troops with young families who need advocates who understand the nuances and stress of military families," she said. Adding, "We have to think about what makes the health care system most operational and effective for the unique population that we serve."

Adirim said that while women in the military health system are making headway in leadership roles, there is still a way to go to developing parity with their male counterparts.

"We need a new set of eyes' to look at the issues of women in leadership and parity. "We're very status quo in the civilian sector and the military," she said. "That's why you want diversity in leadership.

"I want to be the demonstration that women can achieve that level of leadership," she said. "We need more women leaders at (DOD) Health Affairs and the Defense Health Agency level, reflecting who we serve."

Women make up 40% of the military health system. "We need parity there," she said.

"The way policies and procedures are geared toward men, women should think how they can make these policies and procedures fair," Adirim said. "Some 16% of the force is women. There is room for more. Women are smart, strong and very capable."

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