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Pentagon monitoring deployment health care

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AFPN) -- Defense Department officials have changed the way they will track and assess the health care given military people before, during and after deployments, a senior Pentagon health official said Feb. 11.

DOD's new strategy emphasizes health care surveillance of deployed people, said Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, deputy director of the Deployment Health Support Directorate here.

Officials, he said, want no repeat of 1991 Gulf War health care problems, referring to widespread instances reported of deployed people returning home with incomplete and poorly maintained medical records and improperly monitored illnesses.

Kilpatrick said DOD officials are concerned with taking care of the health of military people and their families. "To do that optimally, we need to provide preventive care," he said. "And if a servicemember becomes ill or is injured, we need to provide treatment for (him or her)."

After a deployment, he added, people need to know that DOD will provide them with care for any medical problem they may develop.

This strategy is designed to help the department track servicemembers' diseases and injuries and to provide them comprehensive follow-up treatment for deployment-related health conditions, he said.

Kilpatrick directs the DOD effort to protect the health of deployed servicemembers. He said there was no unique screening being done before deployment during the Gulf War. "If you were on active duty, you were generally assumed to be deployable," he said.

Now, he said, Defense Department officials plan to see that force health is closely monitored through a series of medical assessments before and after deployment and that health concerns are documented and closely monitored.

Kilpatrick said the pre- and post-deployment health assessment is a short series of questions that look to see if troops are physically and psychologically prepared to deploy. The forms can be found on DOD's deployment Web site at www.deploymentlink.osd.mil.

he assessment is "an opportunity for them to bring up any medical conditions that occurred to them in the last several months or in the period since their last physical examination. It's a quick check to make sure they are ready to go," he said.

The health assessments are done on paper and checked by a physician "to see if there are any changes in servicemembers' health or condition that may require attention before or after they deploy," Kilpatrick said. Later, the forms are sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where they are scanned electronically and retained for analysis.

Defense Department officials established three deployment health centers, one each for health surveillance, health care and health research. They focus on the prevention, treatment and understanding of deployment-related health concerns. Two centers are at Walter Reed; the third is at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

The department will improve deployment-related medical record keeping through its Composite Health Care System II and the Theater Medical Information Program, which is still being tested.

Kilpatrick said the two systems will collect immunization data and computerized medical files currently being gathered on deployed military people from all the services in order to document deployment-related health problems.

He said special forces soldiers deployed to remote areas can now use handheld computers to gather and store medical data on soldiers and later transmit the data to their headquarters.

Still, pre- and post-deployment health assessments and electronic record keeping are only part of the force protection strategy. Kilpatrick said broader initiatives to protect deployed people are expected and more research is being done.

The plan includes improving health risk communication and medical intelligence; providing environmental risk assessments to commanders on the battlefield; giving medical threat briefings; and distributing pocket-sized health guides to deployed people. Kilpatrick's staff also created deployment-focused Web sites, such as DeploymentLINK.

In addition, the defense medical surveillance system programmers created a database on diseases military people may encounter in deployed areas. Another plan is to send preventive medicine and environmental surveillance teams to forward-deployed areas to evaluate health threats on the battlefield.

Another measure calls for improved biological and chemical warfare detection and alarm systems. And Pentagon officials are researching current vaccines and anti-malarial drugs and exploring next-generation vaccines and drugs, he said.

Kilpatrick said the new program shows how seriously DOD officials regard force health protection.

"We've learned a great deal from deployments over the past 12 years since the Gulf War, and we intend to use those lessons to benefit those who serve today," Kilpatrick said. "That's what this program is all about."

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