Digital Natives Have Military Officials Rethinking Health Care Training

An actor holds onto a medical technician attempting to assist him during the Cannon Air Force Base Medic Rodeo, a training exercise designed to test the skills of Air Force medical technicians in both deployed and home instillation environments.

An actor holds onto a medical technician attempting to assist him during the Cannon Air Force Base Medic Rodeo, a training exercise designed to test the skills of Air Force medical technicians in both deployed and home instillation environments. Gage Daniel/Air Force

Defense and military officials must revamp instruction to meet today’s needs and the expectations of a next-generation workforce.

The uncertain but complex future of war is forcing military and federal health care professionals to rethink recruitment and introduce cutting-edge technologies to boost the development of a more savvy and agile workforce, insiders said Wednesday.   

“The changing nature of war and what we are projecting our next conflict to be, which is far more lethal, far more complex than it is today with our peer or near-peer competitors,” Commander of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Colonel and Dr. Jerome Buller, told Nextgov at a Genius Machines event in San Antonio. “So that’s going to require us to make our medics more capable [and] also our war fighters more capable.”

USAISR works to drive advancements in combat casualty care and houses the Defense Department’s only state-of-the-art burn center. The institute has been implementing augmented reality in its systems and training, he said, and it has also offers remote telehealth capabilities across the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, to enable digitally-driven support for medics in the decisions that they make.

“It’s worked extremely well,” he said. “It’s very, very helpful.”

Officials at the institute are also working to automate a lot of processes that are extremely difficult in controlled settings like hospitals, much less hostile wartime environments. For example, establishing airways—getting a tube safely down into a patients’ trachea—is the second-leading cause of preventable deaths on the battlefield, Buller said. Medics fail more than 30% of the time they attempt the procedure, but USAISR recognizes this as a unique opportunity to introduce automation and enable a new level of imperative precision. 

“So we are looking at automating those techniques, but again, [it’s about] training or having a more agile or more flexible medic, war fighter,” Buller said. “And technology will absolutely continue to be more and more present, but the good thing is [incoming recruits have] grown up in the digital age, so it’s a lot easier to transition for them.”

Capt. Thomas Herzig, commandant of the Defense Health Agency’s Medical Education and Training Campus, aims to modernize the campus’ training of medics, corpsman and medical technicians who will work across most branches of the military.

“We get our training requirements from each of the services and the services over the past several years have had to adjust and modify what is taught because what is capable and what is performed at remote locations is drastically different than decades ago—our capabilities are astounding,” Herzig said. “So education has had to adjust as well.”

The commandant explained that the campus recently started to integrate “extremely realistic” simulations and virtual reality technology to provide students with real-life hands-on training that feels much like they’d feel operating in wartime or intense hospital or clinical settings. Once they learn all the basics, technology is introduced to better inform them about what to expect in a real-world environment. 

“So it’s been a change, it’s been an evolution, but our students and our new recruits that we receive are today’s generation of millennials—they come pretty sophisticated already,” he said. “They know how to use the tools and the technology, it’s applying what we need them to understand to the technology that they already understand.”

In that light, Dr. Douglas Boyer, who served in active duty but is now the chief health informatics officer for the South Texas Veterans Health Care System of the Veterans Affairs Department, added that the evolving ubiquity of technology and incoming generation of digital natives are both forcing high-level officials to rethink and transform their approaches to workforce recruitment and training. 

“Building on that comment you mentioned about recruiting and you know, ‘do you have to help [incomers] be more technologically savvy?’ I’d almost turn that on its head and say that we as leaders have to be more understanding of the technology that is right at our fingertips when these folks are recruited and in how we recruit them,” Boyer said. 

Boyer explained that, historically, everyone went to school and memorized the same multiplication tables and learned the same history lessons that were accepted across international standards. 

“But good grief, that’s not where we are anymore—those skills aren’t the skills that I need,” he said. 

To meet the needs and challenges of today’s interconnected world, Boyer said he is not looking for folks who can memorize a table of pharmacotherapies but is instead looking for individuals with high discernment skills who can recognize whether the information in front of them is reliable. 

“We are looking for folks that can find the studies and identify, ‘OK, this one is very suspicious because it’s heavily industry-sponsored and it may not be true,’” he said. 

Boyer also noted that the workforce itself is evolving with the introduction and evolution of new technologies. He said before the panel he spoke to an active duty Air Force member in the audience who plans to move from a public affairs role to an information technology role to pursue a computer science degree.

“We are receiving very technologically savvy people that want to join us in being tech-savvy,” Boyer said. “So we are prepared to take these folks on as leaders and we have to be actively looking for and recruiting those types of folks.”

When prompted, the panelists also took a moment to assuage the audience’s fears that all this new technology will distract trainers and instructors from teaching the future workforce the basics. 

“I can assure you our medics, our corpsman and our technicians are trained and they understand the basics, they can do the basics and we ensure that they can perform the basics before we apply the technologies and using the simulators and introducing other types of electronics,” Herzig said. “A medic is a medic, a corpsman is a corpsman and there are certain skills that you have to demonstrate.”