Surgeons and patients benefit in military-medical partnership

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Military surgeons are staying battlefield ready while giving specialized care to Colorado Springs trauma patients, through a unique partnership between the Air Force Academy and UCHealth Memorial Hospital.

The program is part of a larger initiative developed at the request of Air Force leaders who saw a need for Air Force surgeons stay adept at caring injured patients at a fast pace, according to a news release issued by the Air Force Academy.

Three surgeons from the Academy’s 10th Medical Group are currently involved in the skills maintenance program, according to a news release from UCHealth. Some days they work at the Academy, taking care of cadets, active duty members, retirees and military beneficiaries, and other days they work in Memorial Hospital Central’s emergency room — the busiest in Colorado.

According to the Academy’s news release, the Academy surgeons working at Memorial are exposed to a spectrum of complex trauma cases not normally seen while assigned to the base, where maintaining vital battle-ready trauma skills can be a challenge.

“There is a tangible benefit to taxpayers when military surgeons take lessons learned in civilian trauma centers to the battlefield,” said Dr. Keyan Riley, an Air Force Reserve trauma surgeon who participated in the program at Memorial, said in the release.

“A large population here in Colorado Springs is military, so the same people we’re sending down range to fight are the ones who are going to be directly affected and benefit from that care,” he told the Business Journal. “The larger picture is that it helps our surgeons to keep those skills current and to provide better care when they are taking care of the beneficiaries up at the Academy or at Fort Carson.

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“It exposes you to a wider range of medicine that what you might see on an Air Force base alone,” he said.

Riley said Air Force surgeons in the program are integrated fully into the medical and trauma staffs at Memorial.

The Air Force surgeons are all board-certified and fully qualified, but when they are assigned to a stateside base they have little exposure to the injuries seen in trauma centers, according to the UCHealth news release. With the drawdown in combat operations overseas and recent changes in military medical care, maintaining vital skills trauma has been a challenge.

The importance of military medical collaboration with civilian hospitals has recently been the subject of attention, the UCHealth news release added. The Journal of the American College of Surgeons published research on the subject last year, with the lead author — a pediatric surgeon at San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas — stating that “evidence suggests that we fall significantly below our civilian counterparts in both overall case numbers and in case complexity.”

Before being deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, Riley was embedded full time as a surgeon at Memorial in preparation for his tour, according to the release.

“I took those skills with me on deployment, where I served as the deputy commander for clinical services at the largest deployed military hospital in Afghanistan,” Riley said.

According to the release, Maj. Justin Koenig, who returned from a deployment in Africa over the summer and is one of the surgeons now assigned to Memorial a few days each month, also said the UCHealth-military relationship helps keep his skills sharp.

“The military has a goal to keep our readiness higher. We need to be ready to deploy and go to war, and especially as surgeon and trauma surgeons, we’re the backbone of the medical services,” he said in the UCHealth release, recalling an instance in the Sahara Desert when he had to provide treatment after a high-speed rollover involving military forces. “I had to make a diagnosis quickly and get the patient to a local hospital. There weren’t any other medical personnel able to do that.

“For me, this experience at Memorial Hospital has been really beneficial to keep up the trauma skills I learned while in residency,” Koenig said.