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Health Innovation Month: Finding new ways to better health outcomes

Sean Biggerstaff, Ph.D., acting director for the Research and Development directorate for the Defense Health Agency  Sean Biggerstaff, Ph.D., acting director for the Research and Development directorate for the Defense Health Agency

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The old saying goes, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” In the Military Health System, we constantly innovate new ideas. Those might include cutting-edge pieces of equipment or different processes. Our goal is to get those better health outcomes, not just the same results. July is Health Innovation Month, a time for us to reflect on the new ideas and techniques that help us save and enhance the lives of our 9.4 million beneficiaries.

As the acting director for the Research and Development directorate for the Defense Health Agency, I get to see and hear about a lot of great ideas being developed to improve the health of our warfighters, retirees, and family members. Real innovation in our system involves taking new approaches to what we do, and breaking out of our old paradigms to find novel solutions that aren’t necessarily intuitive. While research is often innovative, not all researchers and practitioners have the ability to innovate. True innovation requires you to break your own paradigm and do something different. That can be done by adopting a new approach or process and testing or implementing it. Or it could be the identification of a new technology to solve your problem.

One example of how we have changed that paradigm is to use different methods to access industries or communities we normally wouldn’t access. Our directorate is working with the Defense Health Agency’s acquisition directorate and other Department of Defense agencies to use Other Transaction Authorities. Better known as OTAs, these, and other tools, allow us to use different contracting mechanisms to find innovators and get them under contract more quickly – reducing an 18-month process to about 60 days. Since the movement from science to practice in health care can take years to decades, it’s critical to shorten the time to initiate the collection of definitive evidence and then deliver a new care option.

The military has a long history of innovation, especially in the field of health care. More than 100 years ago, Army doctor Walter Reed built on previous doctors’ work to confirm the theory that one particular mosquito carried yellow fever. Eliminating that bug would save thousands of lives. More recently, military health professionals worked together to develop the Joint Trauma System, an innovative approach that has contributed to the highest survivability rates from battlefield injuries in the history of warfare. For example, by using a system that collected and analyzed injury and treatment data in a central location (the DoD Trauma Registry), the MHS has been able to support changes in medical procedures that proved to save more lives. By identifying trends in outcomes based upon the care given, the Joint Trauma System highlighted possible gaps in our knowledge and possible solutions. This then fed new research efforts to develop the evidence base to change how we care for our wounded. The bottom line: The system made sure that no matter the service involved – Army, Navy, or Air Force – it will be the right care at the right time.

Civilian physicians have been learning what aspects of trauma care military physicians employ to treat battlefield injuries. The San Antonio Military Medical Center, one of two Level I Trauma Centers in the city, works closely with the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council and University Hospital, San Antonio’s other Level I Trauma Center, to provide trauma care to citizens of the city and other rural areas of southwest Texas. The council’s mission is to develop, implement, and maintain the regional trauma and emergency health care system for 22 counties encompassing more than 26,000 square miles in southwest Texas to the Mexico border. As you can see, military medicine innovation has paid big dividends in the health of warfighters, and in turn, the health of the civilian public.

We don’t know what the future of military medicine will be. It could include autonomous drones that would hover over an injured combatant on the battlefield, perform a surgery guided by a doctor’s hands thousands of miles away, and then transport that warfighter back to a safe area for further treatment. It could include instantaneous development and manufacture of treatments for individual warfighters based on their genes. Other innovations will likely focus on technologies and interventions to increase the length and quality of life for those active duty members and their families long after they have left the battlefield.

The pace of medical innovation continues to increase. The Military Health System must not be left behind as civilian hospitals and research centers find new ways to save and improve lives. By highlighting new medical innovations, whether a device or a process, this month and every month, we’ll keep up with that fast pace. We’ll save lives and improve the quality of living not only for our 9.4 million beneficiaries, but for all who will benefit from our innovation efforts.

Our job is not just to adopt the current technologies used, but to push the limits to be able to advance medicine now and in the future.

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