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US, UK military clinical currency program reaches milestone, strengthens partnership

  • Published
  • By Kelley Schlitt
  • U.S. Air Force International Health Specialists
The 48th Medical Group at Royal Air Force Lakenheath surpassed two decades of partnership with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service where Air Force medics integrate within U.K. hospitals.

Partnerships with civilian hospitals are vital to Air Force medics maintaining both clinical currency and deployed medical skills. Most military treatment facilities have relatively healthy populations and medics do not often get the same types of cases encountered during combat, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions.

In 2001, the program included only Air Force surgeons. Now the program includes 15 enlisted and officer medical specialties, with more opportunities and growth to come.

Currently, six U.K. hospitals participate in the program, including a leading trauma hospital in London and an emergency surgery hospital in Birmingham. Air Force participation includes surgeons, obstetrics and gynecology providers, registered nurses, histopathology technicians, and physical therapy technicians.

As one of the few Air Force medical training agreements outside of the United States, the program provides unique value to forces in Europe. While English is a shared language in the partnership, working in a foreign environment offers Air Force medics exposure to different practices and fosters greater interoperability.

Shared techniques

“Working with U.K. surgeons provides a different perspective and approach to medical practice,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jacob Stephenson, National Health Service Program Medical Director. “Operating in a foreign institution requires a certain amount of flexibility and adaptability. These are important traits for engaging with partner nations during security cooperation activities or contingency operations.”

Staff Sgt. Torrian Tatum, an Independent Duty Medical Technician with the 48th Medical Group and participant in the program, said he has experienced many benefits. Independent Duty Medical Technicians have a broad skillset and are accustomed to adapting in challenging settings.

“When initially assessing a patient, my British coworkers said we were going to log-roll the patient. I was surprised when they only rolled the patient to a 45-degree angle on each side rather than a 90-degree angle on one side,” said Tatum. “Luckily, I was able to adjust quickly without any issue. This sparked one of many valuable discussions about the pros and cons of our different methods.”

Tatum recognized that partner-nation practices offer effective treatment options in addition to those taught in the United States. He said it is important to learn each other’s lingo to ensure clear communication. He took these lessons learned with him on a deployment where he was the lead medic for medical forces from several NATO countries.

“We needed to standardize medical care among our forces and establish a medical plan for contingency operations,” said Tatum. “My experience working in the U.K. medical system enabled me to be successful in this role.”

Familiarity with partner and ally medical methods and equipment is essential for medics working together in coalition environments, creating efficiencies and ensuring medical readiness for the next fight.

Col. James Sampson, Chief Surgical Consultant to the U.S. Air Force Surgeon General, believes the program’s diversity of experiences and opportunities provides leadership development and retention.

“The program’s readiness focus also serves as a force retention tool,” said Sampson. “The easiest way to increase force readiness is to keep Airmen in the Air Force.”

As the first Airman to serve in a National Health Services hospital in 2001, Sampson believes programs like this positively affected his career decisions and leadership growth.

Strengthen alliances

“This training agreement invests in one of our closest alliances,” said Col. Stephen Lehr, U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa command surgeon. “The United Kingdom and the United States are both stronger when we can work together. Increasing interoperability supports the U.S. European Command and its strategy in the region.”

Brig. Gen. Thomas Harrell, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency commander, is an advocate of the program. Harrell was the 48th Medical Group commander in 2001 at the program’s inception, and he understands the significance of partnerships and interoperability.

“The medical readiness benefits that the U.S.-U.K. partnership achieve are substantial. The growth and sustainment of this program over 21 years are evidence of its value,” said Harrell. “Now, as the AFMRA commander, I am leveraging this program and initiatives like it to keep Air Force medics at the forefront of delivering Trusted Care, anytime and anywhere.”

Chief Master Sgt. Charles Wortman, Chief of Medical Enlisted Forces, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency, said the program not only strengthens the relationship among military medics, but with the United Kingdom’s civilian patients as well.

“U.S. military personnel providing medical care to the British people visibly demonstrates the United States’ commitment to this alliance,” said Wortman. “Our nations’ relations have only grown stronger for it.”

Growing opportunities

The National Health Service Program Director, Lt. Col. Dara Warren, is working to expand the program with sister services in Europe. She recently re-established an agreement to include Army medics and is now working to bring in the Navy.

“Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we had Army surgeons from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany complete rotations at National Health Service hospital,” said Warren. “We believe a joint partnership program like this answers congressional mandates for the Defense Health Agency to establish currency platforms in domestic and international regions.”

Col. Leigh Swanson, command surgeon at U.S. European Command, believes that the Department of Defense is seizing a great opportunity.

“We recognize the strategic value the U.K. National Health Service clinical currency program provides. We need to capitalize on its success and expand it appropriately,” Swanson said. “This type of global health engagement supports individual and unit readiness, theater operations, and the National Defense Strategy.”