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DOD's Whole of Government Approach to COVID is Working, Says Adirim

Image of Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, right, speaks during a panel discussion. Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, right, speaks during a panel discussion as part of the opening keynote for the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society 2021 annual conference at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, August 8. (MHS photo by Jacob Moore)

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During the opening keynote at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society’s annual conference, Dr. Terry Adirim, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, explained how she has been extremely impressed by the Department of Defense’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic since taking over her current role. She also detailed how adaptation and innovation have played key parts in that response.

The panel, entitled “Preserving the Health of a Population – Early Lessons from a Global Pandemic,” was hosted by Hal Wolf, HIMSS president and chief executive officer, and included Adirim, Dr. Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer for Israel’s Clalit Health Services; Dr. Patrice Harris, CEO and co-founder of eMed; and Dr. Hans Henri Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe.

“I was very impressed when I came in in January with all of the work that the department has done. It really took a whole of government approach and that was very much emphasized by Secretary (of Defense, Lloyd) Austin,” Adirim said. “He really supported all aspects and sectors in doing that, as well as taking care of our service members and beneficiaries.”

Adirim explained how she was also impressed with how “thoughtful,” the DOD’s Force Health Protection Guidance was regarding COVID, although emerging variants such as Delta may necessitate a shift in the department’s approach.

“Even pre-vaccination, we were able to protect our force and they were able to complete their mission,” she said. “I think Delta has thrown a wrench in that a little bit, but I think overall, the Department of Defense has, and continues to do, a pretty good job.”

Adirim said the early lessons learned should be catalysts for change within DOD healthcare.

“We need to take what we’ve done during the pandemic – and those things that are working, document that for going forward,” she said.

With the changing nature of the virus, and new information becoming available daily, she said flexibility and change are essential to the DOD’s mission.

“Our healthcare system has been fairly nimble when it comes to re-looking at how we do things and when it comes to completing our missions, especially our national security mission,” said Adirim. “We’ve had to adapt and change. It was hard, but when people see that it’s working, we’ll continue to do those things going forward.”

Change includes looking at an issue and adapting to the current environment. She spoke specifically about addressing children’s mental health citing that, of the Military Health System’s 9.6 million beneficiaries, a significant portion are children of service members who have to deal with the anxiety that can go along with frequent moves, changing schools, etc.

“We’ve been leveraging technology and we’ve greatly expanded tele-behavioral health,” Adirim said. “Necessity is the mother of invention. The pandemic hit and we made sure we expanded that, so our families could have better access to mental health services.”

Adirim also spoke about the innovation that has taken place within the DOD. Just one example was using 3D printing for protective items such as face shields to overcome supply chain issues and equipment shortages that presented themselves early in the pandemic.

“I think using technology for even the more mundane things would help us be more well-prepared,” she said

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