Air Force discusses future of medicine at annual workshop

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Leaders across the Air Force Medical Service met virtually and in-person for an annual Senior Leadership Workshop in Leesburg, Virginia, December 7-9, sharing ideas focused on recalibrating operational readiness.

Lt. Gen. Robert Miller, U.S. Air Force Surgeon General, and Chief Master Sgt. Dawn Kolczynski, Chief, Medical Enlisted Force, kicked off the workshop by thanking medical Airmen for what they have accomplished in the past year, especially ongoing support to civilian hospitals in areas seeing a surge of COVID-19 cases, treating Afghan allies, all while providing care to service members, their families and veterans.

“There is a sense of urgency regarding where we are today and where we need to be,” said Miller. “We’ve got a fine-tuned machine. We know that the next big fight is probably not going to be like the last one. We all want to make sure that our medics continue to be ready to lead the fight, to go wherever we need to go, and deliver that Trusted Care.”

A panel of speakers discussed their experiences working with international partners and dealing with language and cultural barriers supporting Operation Allies Refuge.

Between Afghanistan, Qatar and Germany, Air Force medics adapted to an unexpectedly large influx of evacuees in a short period of time. Medical teams ensured they provided the necessary screenings, testing and urgent medical care.

“Our operational tempo was higher than anticipated,” said Col. Luis Otero, 379, Commander, Expeditionary Medical Group. “For three weeks we were running 14 to 18-hour days, consistently. I put out a call to my fellow medical group commanders that I need people who can provide additional support, I need people who can do obstetrics, I need people who can take some of the load off us. And they answered that call.”

Read more: Saving lives and starting lives: Medical efforts in Operation Allies Refuge

Read more: In-flight medical care key enabler to Afghan evacuation mission

One of the stories highlighted from Operation Allies Refuge was how Capt. Leslie Green, a flight nurse with the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, helped to deliver a baby aboard a flight out of Afghanistan.

“Two weeks prior to this deployment, I had an opportunity to receive some training focusing on obstetrics,” said Green. “All the experiences and training in the military is absolutely helpful. I definitely credit the success of the birth to all the people who have helped provide expert training for all of us.”

Read more: ‘Baby on board’ – Aircrew deliver Afghan baby on evacuation flight

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff Surgeon, spoke on joint operational readiness.

“As leaders, we should be asking ourselves what are the things we should be setting aside, while still honoring the legacy of our predecessors,” said Friedrichs. “We need to recognize that the character of war is changing, so the way that we care for casualties must change as well.”

Command surgeons briefed leaders on the ways they are improving their capabilities for anticipated future demands, from advancing Expeditionary Medical Support Systems to be more modular, to working around possible medical logistic challenges in resource-limited environments.

“Although we have been incredibly successful, it’s time for us to evolve and change,” said Brig. Gen. Robert Bogart, Command Surgeon, Air Combat Command. “We are facing new and emerging security threats and our current deployment of medical assets need to evolve in order to meet the needs of the combatant commander in tomorrow’s contested environments.”

One of the items being addressed is expanding training courses based on lessons learned from COVID-19, such a developing a formal infectious disease air transport course. Medical leaders are also reexamining surgical procedures as it relates to patient transport. Air Mobility Command and Air Combat Command are partnering to look at the possibility of using ground surgical teams in flight.

Speakers also discussed the importance of addressing mental health care, its challenges, and the need to restructure to ensure service members get the care they need. One of the ways the AFMS is addressing these challenges is by looking at the mental health technician scope of practice to ensure they gain necessary clinical experience to effectively provide support and deliver care both at home and while deployed.

“[Mental health technicians] work well with our psychologists and our social workers,” said Chief Master Sgt. Julie Foreman, mental health technician career field manager. “We do this well under clinical supervision at our MTFs, but there are times that our technicians have deployed as the only mental health asset and I need to make sure that they’re prepared. The only way to do that is if they are practicing in the clinic.”

Another demand on Air Force medics is retaining clinical currency to deliver Trusted Care both at home and while deployed. Speakers discussed the importance of ensuring medics have access to the diversity and acuity of care to maintain their own readiness.

“Across the services, we are discussing how we can best optimize our inpatient platforms to ensure our medics get the right clinical mix and caseload,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Harrell, Commander, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “We are going to look at ways to best use our direct care systems, in addition to partnership with [Veterans Affairs] and civilian hospital to keep our medics ready.”

Miller and Kolczynski closed out the three-day workshop applauding the dedication of leaders, and the importance of these leaders making sure their medics are ready for the future fight.

“It is amazing what you have accomplished, from delivery of the health care benefit in the MTF, caring for warfighters on deployments, to COVID-19 response and support to Afghan allies,” said Miller. “It makes me proud to be a medic and to be your Surgeon General. I have no doubts we will accomplish great things and be ready for the next fight.”