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Top Military Health Leaders Discuss Future Readiness

Image of An Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, prepares to transport U.S. Army medical personnel to Guam in support of the global COVID-19 response on April 13, 2020. An Air Force C-17 Globemaster III at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, prepares to transport U.S. Army medical personnel to Guam in support of the global COVID-19 response on April 13, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erin Baxter)

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Top military health leaders highlighted the importance of preparing for the future to ensure both a medically ready force and a ready medical force.

Representatives of the surgeons general for the Army, Navy and Air Force along with the Joint Staff surgeon and the director of the Defense Health Agency discussed their vision for sustaining and improving readiness in the face of continual change.

These five military health leaders spoke at a virtual event hosted by AMSUS, the Society of Federal Health Officials, on Feb. 23.

"Being ready today is not good enough if it comes at the expense of being ready for future conflicts," said Air Force Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon.

"As clinicians, we know that the practice of medicine is changing rapidly," Friedrichs continued. "And we have to stay on top of that. But the character of war is changing as well."

A new national security strategy is likely to be published soon and that may impact the discussions and plans about what the military needs to be prepared for, Friedrichs added.

Air Force Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Robert Miller, surgeon general of the Air Force, said his primary focus is the Air Force medical community's vision to remain the world's elite medical service in the air and in space.

"We need to continue to recruit and train medical airmen who can deliver reliable and safe care anytime, anywhere, no matter the environment that they find themselves in," said Miller, whose office oversees health care for both airmen and the Space Force guardians.

"Secondly, we must continue to equip our medics with the latest skills and tools to do their job safely in uncertain conditions. And, finally, we need to optimize the human performance of our airmen and guardians, developing more capable medics through dynamic training educational opportunities, and finding new ways to rapidly modernize."

Navy Rear Adm. (Dr.) Bruce Gillingham, Navy surgeon general and chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, agreed. He noted the importance of setting priorities.

For Navy medicine, the four priorities are people, platforms, performance, and power, he said.

"Our goal is to have highly qualified, highly trained medical experts who can go downrange and do their job," he explained. "That requires identifying what those requirements are and making sure that we're meeting them."

A future conflict could be very different than recent war operations from the post-9/11 era, he said.

"For the Navy, in the maritime environment, that means being able to operate in a very distributed environment, working against the tyranny of time and distance in that theater. So that means developing new capabilities."

In defining Army readiness, Army Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Telita Crosland, Army deputy surgeon general, said she sees the challenge through two lenses.

"One is keeping soldiers ready and getting them out to the fight. And the second is how our surgeon general looks at his priorities to make sure that the medical force is ready," she said.

The mission is to balance and address both challenges at the same time, she said.

"There's not one approach to that. There's not one solution," she said. "So, we look at our military hospitals and clinics that generate those opportunities, not just by keeping soldiers and their families ready, but also to keep our medical force in an environment where they can train and maintain their clinical competencies."

Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ron Place, the DHA director, highlighted the DHA's role as a combat support agency. The DHA supports the combatant commands and the individual military departments in their core mission of training, manning, and equipping the force."

"As a combat support agency, it's all about support," Place said. "The medical force requirements come from the services."

The DHA can support readiness efforts in many ways, especially in the training programs.

"Much of the obtaining and sustaining of what that readiness looks like happens at the Medical Education and Training Campus," Place added. "It happens inside the military hospitals and clinics, but the services set the requirements."

Place pointed to numerous Military Health System organizations under the DHA that play an important role in supporting readiness, including the Armed Services Blood Program, the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Division, and the Joint Trauma System.

Place noted that coordination between the DHA and the military departments occurs at "all echelons." Preparing the Military Health System for the future will take "integration along the entire spectrum" to ensure the Defense Department is utilizing the full breadth of the different experiences and expertise across the force, he said.

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