Commentary

The Military Health System is uniquely suited to handle the COVID-19 crisis

Who would have imagined this? We’ve stopped almost everything else we were doing and turned our energies toward fighting this pandemic. As the specific impacts take shape within the United States, the Military Health System is surging forward, implementing standing plans and showing agility in responding to events that some believed were unthinkable even a few short months ago.

Federal and state officials are requesting military medical forces to assist in stemming the spread of infection both directly and indirectly. Hundreds of thousands of professionals who are supported by the relatively young Defense Health Agency are reinforcing our civilian medical capabilities. Just as we’ve done throughout our history, when the U.S. military is called in times of crisis and natural disaster, we answer.

Military medicine is providing assistance in unprecedented ways. Already, two hospital ships, the USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort, are positioned in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively, providing much needed additional medical capability to civilian medical facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. The Army has also established field hospitals in New York and is increasing bed space elsewhere with the phenomenal work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It’s the right thing to do, right now.

In the best of times, the primary mission of the Military Health System is to maintain a medically ready force and a ready medical force. This means we must ensure American Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are medically ready to deploy anywhere, anytime to defend the nation. It also means we must develop and sustain our own medical teams to be trained and ready to support the force. Shifting focus from this primary mission carries risk; however, after two decades of conflict, we are well prepared to both identify risk and develop strategies to mitigate it.

This is not theoretical. We’re taking actions with tangible effects. For instance, we are rapidly shifting as many physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals as we can from administrative duties to direct patient care. We’re plowing new ground by graduating new doctors and nurses months early from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the military’s medical school, so they can join the fight – now. In our military hospitals and clinics, we’ve limited elective medical and dental procedures, so we can decrease surgical inpatient needs, shift clinical staffing toward COVID response, and conserve medical resources for the COVID fight.

Additionally, we’re identifying patient bed space on military installations and planning how to quickly convert — or return to use — unused space, with all of the needed equipment and supplies. That means, in some cases, converting office space once used as patient rooms when our military was twice the size, back to treatment areas. Fighting this pandemic is all-hands-on-deck. No good idea is off the table.

The reassuring news is that the Military Health System is, in some ways, uniquely suited for this crisis. Just as every Marine is a rifleman, every medical provider in our system is a generalist. While many of our health care providers normally do focus on specific diseases or specialties, they are trained to treat patients across the range of needs wherever they’re called to serve. Agility is part of what we offer our nation every day.

Facing multiple challenges is nothing new for us. Together, across the levels of government, we can do this. At this extraordinary time, we can play a significant part in caring for citizens in need, while still ensuring our military forces are medically ready to defend our nation. With the support of the 9.5 million beneficiaries who depend on us for their health care, our agile and dedicated Defense health team is surging thousands of service members to the front lines, helping our fellow Americans, and meeting our obligation to the nation’s sons and daughters who have volunteered to defend them.

Lt. Gen. Ron Place is the Director of the Defense Health Agency. A native of South Dakota, he graduated from the University of South Dakota, and the Creighton University School of Medicine. A general surgeon, Place has served as chief of surgery at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, commanded Ireland Army Community Hospital at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart, Georgia. Prior to taking over as DHA Director,Place served as director National Capital Region Medical Directorate.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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