Doing what’s BEST for the troops

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Having grown up in a military family and served as an Army physician in Iraq, I’ve seen firsthand the importance of our service members’ safety, both on and off the battlefield. Thanks to recent advancements at the Department of Defense and in Congress, we now have the potential to bring the medical training of our troops into the 21st century and save more lives—improvements that have been a long time coming.

This week, the Senate will consider an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that will end the use of live animals in combat trauma training courses in favor of medical simulation. Passage of this amendment, introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and based on his BEST (Battlefield Excellence through Superior Training) Practices Act would modernize combat trauma training courses for medics, corpsman and some non-medical personnel and ultimately improve the safety of troops. This legislation should move forward swiftly, as it will revolutionize the care of wounded service members on the battlefield.  

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Medical simulation is at the forefront of a growing military movement to better care for our injured troops. Earlier this month, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS), the medical school that trains future military physicians, ended its use of live pigs for surgery training in favor of superior medical simulation.

Medical technology has advanced rapidly over the last decade, and the Pentagon has invested more time and resources into medical simulation than anyone else. Breaking with outdated and unnecessary training techniques, the Defense Department has produced lifelike simulators that breathe, bleed, speak and almost perfectly replicate the human anatomy. Members of Congress and concerned physicians urged USUHS to make the transition from using animals, and by doing so, the university will ensure that future military medical professionals receive the most modern and effective training.

Yet as these new combat trauma training devices are breaking new ground for care of our service members, some military medical personnel are still receiving outdated, animal-based training. The Defense Department has even defended this practice of “live tissue training.” Something is amiss here. Why is medical simulation good enough for military medical students yet inadequate for training medics and corpsman?

It’s hard to fathom, especially since the civilian world made this change years ago. In the last ten years or so, 98 percent of civilian trauma training programs have switched to using medical simulation. Out of nearly 280 programs in the United States and Canada, only four still use live animals. These civilian physicians understand that training on an unconscious goat or pig in a lab setting does not prepare students for treating people in a high-stress, combat environment. The scientific evidence bears this out; numerous peer-reviewed studies show that medical simulation is equivalent or superior to the use of “live tissue.” Simulators also offer superior training at a lower cost with no animal cruelty involved.

I’ve seen this at work in the field. As a Brigade Surgeon in Iraq, I responded to traumatic injuries with my working knowledge of the human anatomy. “Live tissue” training does not prepare medics and corpsman for working on a human being; a pig is not a person. My experience has shown me that nothing can prepare a student for that moment when they hold someone’s life in their hands. The most important way to prepare is by training your brain and your fingers to respond properly to the human anatomy.

It is time for the Department of Defense to commit to ending the use of live animals in combat trauma training courses in a swift, responsible manner. That’s why I urge all members of Congress to support the BEST Practices Act, which phases creates a framework for DOD to phase out “live tissue” training within five years. This will provide ample time to implement these cutting-edge, readily-available technologies. Such a transition would ensure that military medical personnel who provide lifesaving care for our troops receive the best, most modern training available. It’s something that all of us who care about our service men and women can support.

DeMuth is a physician of internal medicine who served in the U.S. Army for the better part of two decades. Over the course of his military career, he deployed three times to Iraq as a Flight Surgeon and Brigade Surgeon, where he treated hundreds of trauma injuries. Since 2007, he has practiced medicine as a civilian in Amarillo, Texas.