By Jonathan Woodson, MD
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs
The size and composition of our military is expected to change as war efforts wind down and budget constraints take effect. However, our commitment to improving and maintaining the health and well-being of our troops, retirees and their families will remain unwavering. After 12 years of combat, we have achieved remarkable military medical advancements that we hope to take beyond the battlefield in the coming years.
We will use the clinical skills and lessons learned during wartime to continue to provide innovative, high-quality care that responds faithfully to the needs of our beneficiaries. We remain committed to the high standard set by our years at war.
Yet we must rethink the way we do business. This is more important than ever in the face of national trends toward increasingly poor health and skyrocketing healthcare costs. We seek to make advances not only in the kinds of treatment we provide, but also in how we deliver this care to ensure that we keep moving forward. With this in mind, we will be implementing new initiatives in 2014 that ensure continued medical readiness, better health, better healthcare and lower costs.
The 50th anniversary of U.S. Medicine also provides an opportune moment to look at some of the historic achievements in military medicine during the last half-century. It’s remarkable to see how these medical milestones have laid the groundwork for our continued success in supporting the more than 9.6 million beneficiaries served by the Military Health System. As we look ahead to the coming year, it’s helpful to recognize how our future is driven by the past.
A Brief Look at History
The Military Health System spends millions of dollars on research every year. This investment has led to breakthroughs in the prevention and treatment of a wide range of illnesses and injuries. We are a leader in medical advances, often serving as the first responder to pressing global medical needs that impact not only our service members but civilians as well.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in our contributions throughout our history to the development of life-saving vaccines, including more recently, hepatitis A, adenovirus, influenza, measles, mumps and rubella, meningococcal disease, Japanese encephalitis and hepatitis B. These successes fuel our latest efforts to develop new vaccines, including promising research that shows malaria and breast cancer vaccines may be just around the corner. I am excited to see how the fruits of our labor will help us in the future to eliminate what are common diseases today.
We have also made exciting progress over the years in the care that injured servicemembers receive on the battlefield and at home. We now use large planes for medical evacuations that have emergency care units onboard to provide critical treatment in flight. We have also made major advancements in reducing blood loss — a primary cause of combat death — by continually exploring new treatments. Our ability to provide immediate care to combat casualties as a result of these innovations has enabled us to achieve the highest rate of survival from injuries in the history of warfare.
Our success doesn’t stop at the battle lines though. We have also made substantial progress in supporting our wounded servicemembers by advancing surgical techniques to rebuild extremely disfigured faces, devising new methods for healing and repairing burns from improvised explosive device blasts, developing new prosthetic devices controlled by brain signals and performing limb transplant surgeries.
We have also learned much about traumatic brain injuries in recent years, paving the way for a broader understanding of these injuries. One critical advancement was the creation of concussion care centers in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide immediate specialized care to troops, increasing the chances of a full recovery.
Everything we achieve in the military has a trickle-down effect. What we have accomplished these past 50 years, most notably during the past 12 years of war, will continue to have a lasting impact on the prevention and treatment of illnesses and injuries well beyond the military. I expect in the coming years, if not already, we will see many of the medical advancements made and lessons learned during our most recent wars become standard practice in our military and civilian clinics.
Moving Beyond the Battlefield to Ensure Continued Medical Readiness
The Military Health System is charged with ensuring that our servicemembers are medically ready to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice and that our medical forces are ready to deliver world-class care in all those places and at home.
Maintaining clinical wartime skills in the absence of war is critical. As our record of success makes clear, our medical personnel have learned a great deal about saving lives on the battlefield and rehabilitating wounded servicemembers. With this in mind, we aim to remain at the forefront of medical simulation technologies and teaching methods to allow our medical troops to practice high-risk procedures and experience the kinds of clinical encounters seen in combat. We will also be focusing on bringing care back into our medical treatment facilities that has migrated to the private sector to ensure that our military healthcare providers and staff get to see the kinds of cases necessary to maintain their skills.
We also recognize that 12 years of war have exacted a physical and mental toll on our servicemembers and their families. Never in our history have we spent so much time figuring out how to maintain psychological health and how to treat those with psychological wounds. Currently many cutting-edge ideas for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide are being studied at our research centers.
We will continue to build the resilience of our servicemembers and their families to help them cope and thrive no matter what challenges they may face. We will remain committed to providing mental health care well after all our troops come home to ensure they remain resilient and ready.