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Army doctors, nurses come to Chapel Hill to get experience treating trauma patients

By RICHARD STRADLING | The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) | Published: November 11, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — If you're looking to train military doctors and nurses to treat burns, gunshot wounds and other physical injuries, what better place than a civilian trauma center?

That's the thinking behind a new partnership between the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg and UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill. Starting this month, Army surgeons and other medical personnel will get real-world experience by working alongside their civilian counterparts in UNC's emergency departments, operating rooms and intensive care units.

Dr. Daryhl Johnson, the medical director of the UNC's Trauma Program, said Army medical personnel don't routinely get exposure to the kinds of wounds they're likely to encounter in a combat zone overseas.

"Military hospitals are just not as busy with the high acuity traumatic injuries that you see in civilian centers," said Johnson, who will help lead the Army-UNC partnership.

Maj. Gen. Telita Crosland, the Army's Deputy Surgeon General, agrees.

"The military generally cares for a young healthy population, so we don't see a lot of trauma in our Army hospitals," Crosland said in a written statement. "The opportunity to maintain a high degree of skills proficiency in trauma and critical care is essential."

It's not unusual for military personnel to train in civilian hospitals; one of the most longstanding programs is at the University of Miami medical school in Florida, where the Army's Forward Surgical Teams receive trauma training before deployments.

But the proximity of Fort Bragg and Chapel Hill will allow for a deeper, more sustained relationship between the Army and UNC, Johnson said. Some members of the Forward Surgical Team based at Bragg will work full-time at UNC Medical Center, while others will rotate in as their military training allows. Army medical personnel assigned to Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg also will receive training at UNC.

Johnson said UNC employees and students at the medical school will learn from their Army counterparts as well, in part because so many innovations in trauma care originate with the military.

The Army's Medical Skills Sustainment Program at UNC has been in the works for two years, Johnson said. It began after Womack Medical Center reached out to UNC for help in becoming a Level III trauma center.

UNC is one of six Level 1 trauma centers in North Carolina — hospitals capable of treating the most serious injuries. In the Triangle, Duke University Hospital and WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh are also Level 1 trauma centers.

The meetings between UNC and Womack led to a broader discussion about the need to improve the readiness of military doctors and nurses to treat trauma patients.

Johnson cites a series of US News & World Report articles last fall that found that military surgeons and surgical teams are not getting enough experience in military hospitals to keep their skills sharp. Citing published studies, US News reported that civilian surgeons at busy medical centers perform as many as 500 operations a year, while their military counterparts perform 100 or fewer.

Johnson said he expects the chance to work at UNC will help some Army doctors and nurses decide to remain in the military, rather than seek a civilian job where they would be busier.

"If you're taking care of patients clinically and that's helping you stay more fulfilled and stay in the Army, that's a plus," he said.

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