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MHS leaders discuss future of military medicine during AMSUS panel

Image of Military personnel, wearing masks, standing in a line in front of flags. The military’s top medical leaders pose for a photo after presenting Senior Leadership Panel at Defense during the 2020 Association of Military Surgeons of the United States’ annual meetings. (Photo Courtesy of Office of the Army Surgeon General.)

The top leaders in military medicine discussed the future of the Military Health System and its impact on mission readiness during a Senior Leadership Panel Dec. 8 at the annual meeting of The Society of Federal Health Professionals (AMSUS).

The virtual event was moderated by Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and the panelists included Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency; Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon; the surgeons general of the Army and Navy, Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle and Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham; deputy surgeon general of the Air Force, Maj. Gen. Sean Murphy, and Uniformed Service University of the Health Sciences President Dr. Richard Thomas.

Place began the discussion by saying that, despite setbacks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the transfer in management of more than 700 Army, Navy and Air Force hospitals, medical and dental clinics to the DHA is on track.

“Some important dialogue, feedback loops, improvements, etc. were made during the pause of transition activities,” Place said. “So, there are some improvements that have been made in the intervening several months as well.”

Place said the DHA structure allows them to provide the best treatment options for MHS beneficiaries by moving resources, including personnel, equipment, funding, and capabilities, within a given geographic area.

“The patient-facing side of it is a standardization of practices and procedures such that, it's not a different way to make an appointment at each of the different MTFs, it's a single way. In fact, it's a single appointment line for all of them,” Place said. “It's the way that the pharmacies work, the way that the laboratories work. It's all standardized such that it's easier and more intuitive for each of the patients.”

For Dingle, readiness is the key issue during the transition.

“That readiness includes everything from recruiting, organizing, training and equipment, to making sure that all of those health care professionals are ready to deploy to support tomorrow's battles,” Dingle said.

Gillingham, Dingle’s Navy counterpart, agreed. He also said COVID-19 has highlighted the critical impact of the MHS to readiness of U.S. military forces.

“I think COVID has dramatically emphasized the role that the military has in place, not only in the care delivered in the MTF, but in the installation support,” Gillingham said. “In our case, to keep the fleet or the Marine Corps healthy and ready.”

Thomas also said he thinks the efficiency a “system of systems” created by the MHS has shown, bringing together elements from military and VA hospitals for instance, has been highlighted by the pandemic.

“Although we are at the highest level of hospitalizations in the pandemic, we’re at the lowest level of taskings for military personnel because of these partnerships,” Thomas said. “And the way ahead for us I hope will be to continue to leverage those partnerships and to look for opportunities, not just in a pandemic but to work more closely, sustaining currency and readiness, or any of the other tasks.”

From a Defense Health Agency perspective, Place said the ability to use the interoperability created by the DHA has proved invaluable. Just one example of this is the collection of COVID-19 convalescent plasma. Patients from facilities throughout the MHS contributed to the Secretary of Defense’s goal of collecting 10,000 units of CCP between June and September of this year. Approximately 3,000 donors, all of whom had recovered from the virus, contributed to the campaign.

Place said the integration of the Armed Services blood system and each of the individual services’ blood programs allowed them to locate potential donors and make CCP available across the enterprise.

The improvement of processes is also an integral part of the transition, continuity, and planning operations for the future.

“I think that's been very helpful to all of us,” Thomas said. “I think the importance of continuity of operations planning has been paramount.”

Throughout the event, the panelists agreed that the focus is on the mission and making sure the health system is positioned to meet that mission.

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