Air Force Medicine is engaged in a wide array of health research and innovation projects to improve how we deliver care to the warfighter. One area where the Air Force Medical System is uniquely suited to conduct research is improving the way we transport patients, a field where the Air Force has unequaled experience and a greater need than other major research entities.
“As an AFMS, our biggest job is to move patients,” said Lawrence Mitchell, deputy chief, Program Management Office at the Air Force Medical Support Agency. “Much of our research focuses on how to do that job better.”
Delivering high quality en route care presents new challenges for AFMS researchers. Variables that may not be an issue on the ground can suddenly be a major problem on an air plane flying at 30,000 feet, with space and weight limits, and with no additional help available until the plane lands. To ensure the AFMS is ready to accomplish our medical evacuation mission, researchers are finding new and innovative ways to meet these challenges.
For example, providing en route care on an aircraft creates different oxygen requirements for patients. Patients can be at risk of developing hypoxia, or altitude sickness, when at high altitudes, in addition to any oxygen needs they may have for their care. There are also pressure changes in the cabin that can affect how delicate machinery delivers oxygen. AFMS researchers are investigating how to improve our high-altitude oxygen systems during medical evacuations, as well as what would be the proper altitude for planes to fly for certain injuries, and what impact low oxygen might have on doctors, nurses and technicians while they for patients.
Another major issue for en route care is weight and space, both of which are greatly limited on an air plane. AFMS researchers are finding new ways to make medical equipment used in flight more efficient. One example is a project to develop a multi-channel infusion pump that will allow medical Airmen to use a single station to monitor multiple patients. Currently, each pump requires its own monitoring station, taking up precious weight and space that could otherwise go to more patients or other equipment.
AFMS research isn’t limited en route care, but supports many readiness requirements for Air Force Medicine. With medical Airmen deployed around the world in a variety of missions, Air Force medical research must remain responsive to those needs.
“As researchers in the AFMS we are going to investigate any capability gaps identified by our customer, the warfighter,” said Mitchell. “Our research impacts readiness once we identify a solution and can close one of those gaps and provide a new or improved capability to the warfighter.”
The two primary Air Force medical research platforms are the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, and the 59th Medical Wing at Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. Just some of the many other projects currently underway by Air Force researchers include exploring new ways to improve sterilization of medical equipment in the deployed environment, projects to save limbs during trauma situations in austere environments, and regenerative medicine that may actually enable patients to regrow extremities like hands.
“Across our portfolio, the focus is better care, better health and improving patient safety,” said Mitchell. “Our expertise in en route care makes that a primary area of study, but our researchers are engaged in many other projects to help sustain readiness and keep our medical forces on the cutting edge of medical processes and technology.”