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New UNC Program Will Turn Army Medics Into Local Practitioners

Highly trained members of military medic corps are looking for ways to continue in healthcare once they leave the service. A new program created by UNC is intended to help them make the transition.

By Rose Hoban

Sergeant Eric Strand spent more than a decade in the US Army Special forces as a combat medic; he completed a year’s intensive training in medicine; he served three tours in Iraq where he treated wounded comrades and provided the rest of his company with primary care.

But there’s no way for him to use those skills in civilian life.

Medic Sargeant Strand shows off a special coin commemorating the UNC Physician Assistant Program for Returning Veterans program.

Special Forces Medic Sergeant Eric Strand shows off a special coin commemorating the UNC Physician Assistant Program for Returning Veterans program.

“Two wars are coming to an end, a lot of people who have been doing this still have the heart and the passion to serve,” Strand said. “They want to find a way to transition into civilian life.”

For Strand, that means applying to medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill for next fall. But many of his older, married comrades don’t have the resources or time to spend years in medical school and residency.

So, a new program to train army medics as physician assistants at the UNC School of Medicine may just be the ticket.

The program, still to be finalized by the UNC Board of Governors, is designed for field medics like Strand to take their skills into the civilian realm.

Once finalized it would be the first of its kind in the country, ready to accept students in 2015.

There are around a thousand special forces medical sergeants serving currently, and some of them leave the military every year, said command surgeon Col. Peter Benson, the deputy of staff at the US Army Special Operations Command. They – and Navy SEALS corpsmen who have received similar training – will be eligible for the program.

Benson said some of his men have told him, “‘I can get a job as a paramedic. But I can’t get a job at the commensurate skill level, that will pay me what I’m worth, for what I know.’ This is where this program comes in.”

“If you look at the task list that they get in their year of clinical training, it overlaps about 85 percent with an emergency medical residency,” said Benson, who’s a surgeon. “So when they come out of just the Army training pipeline itself, they have a skill level that far exceeds not only an EMT or a paramedic, but it also outstrips someone like a nurse practitioner, or most physician assistants already.”

“Yet, there’s no recognized civilian standard. There’s no way for them to practice.”

Benson makes a point to Charles Cairns, MD, head of emergency medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Command surgeon Col. Peter Benson, from the US Army Special Operations Command makes a point to Charles Cairns, MD, head of emergency medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Benson and officials from UNC noted that many of the medics who might want to participate in such a program already live in North Carolina, or have put down roots in the state after being stationed on Fort Bragg or at Camp Lejeune.

“Almost a million North Carolinians live in a place where they don’t have access, or enough access, to health care professionals to meet their needs,” said Brad Wilson, CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which is donating $1.2 million over four years to help establish the program and hire staff. About $300,000 will be a matching grant for donations made by others, bringing the potential total raised by BCBSNC to about $1.5 million.

“There’s simply more need out there than we can meet, and more need than we can meet by simply graduating more physicians,” Wilson said. “Studies show that physician assistants can help ease the shortages and provide access to quality care, in some instances where there’s nothing else available.”

Wilson and others made the point that healthcare students who train in North Carolina will be more likely to stay in the state. And many will be just fine with working in rural communities.

“Many people in the military come from rural communities and enjoy working in those settings,” said Bruce Cairns, head of the NC Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Hospital who helped design the program. “The people we select won’t necessarily be interested in going to a large academic center, but out into their communities. They become natural leaders by virtue of their service.”

Cairns pointed out that a national survey of the Special Forces medical sergeants found 92 percent of them said they’d like to pursue healthcare careers once they leave the military.

“After a decade of sacrifice and commitment to their country, we have an obligation to help these folks succeed once they become civilians,” Cairns said.

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