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Air Force Medical Service hosts innovation summit, prepares for future challenges

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Bringing together NASA, HHS, DARPA, FAA, VA, DHA, AFRL, and other Federal partners. (Graphic by U.S. Air Force)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- Leaders across the Military Health System and partner federal agencies met for the inaugural Operational Air and Space Medical Innovation Alliance Summit on October 29.

The meeting brought together NASA, Department of Health and Human Services, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Federal Aviation Administration with military health representatives who are working on innovative solutions that could make an impact in medicine.

With the goal of solving future challenges today, the summit aimed to cultivate more cross-agency cooperation by identifying common areas of focus to better leverage each other’s strengths to support national security.

“Only through innovation can we both reduce and overcome threats to human health and force readiness,” said Lt. Gen. Robert I. Miller, Air Force Surgeon General.

Technological advances have steadily continued to impact how military medics treat illnesses, but because of pandemic-induced necessity, there has been a definite uptick in innovation the past two years.

The many lessons learned throughout the COVID-19 response, and the collaboration and innovation among partners that it generated, underlined the need to initiate a government-wide discussion, with the hopes of establishing a better format to encourage ongoing dialogue and synergy.

“I was mobilized as part of a federal COVID response in March 2020 working with HHS, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and other federal partners,” said Brig. Gen. John Bartrum, the summit organizer and Mobilization Assistant to Miller. “In order to figure out how to best respond, and determine the best use of our assets, we had to look to each other and try to figure out what technology or solutions were out there that we might be able to use.”

Even for agency partners who are used to working together, due to COVID-19, chances are that their portfolios and priorities have recently changed, sometimes drastically.

In the past two years, there have been several emerging technologies that have arrived on scene; a new on-demand renal dialysis technology that can be administered at home using tap water; the creation of Rapid Aseptic Packaging of Injectable Drugs, or RAPID, that enables circumventing glass vial and syringe shortages; and the development of the Priority Medicines on Demand, a capability that allows for the production of critical medications in a small box by allowing patients to add ingredients themselves.

The applications for these innovations in austere environments could change the face of military medicine.

The summit also focused on some of the overlapping themes in virtual health care, from diagnostic technology and virtual surgery capabilities to wearables and opportunities to use 3D printing.

“It was interesting to see that a number of us are looking at similar areas of research or initiatives, but for different purposes or beneficiaries,” said Bartrum. “Great ideas often come from different domains, but then reach success upon someone re-envisioning a new application for it.”

Similarly, the group also discussed the next generation of innovative scientists who will someday replace them in these types of endeavors.

“When it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education, if you don’t foster interest in STEM to children when they’re young, it makes it a lot more difficult for them to have the right knowledge base to make career choices early in life,” said Bartrum. “It was great to see there was a lot of interest in collaboratively hosting future events geared at promoting STEM throughout the country.”

As the day wrapped up, Miller said the summit surpassed his expectations and he looked forward to seeing innovative ideas implemented in the near future.

“The summit succeeded in fostering inter-agency connections, with many of those in attendance commenting on how enlightening it was to examine and share data with each other,” said Miller. “Everyone agreed they were interested in meeting again in six months, so we intend for this to be a semiannual event.”

(Editor’s note: Citations of commercial organizations, products, and trade names do not constitute Department of the Defense endorsement or approval of the products or services of these organizations.)

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