USAF docs hone military medicine skills while aiding British patients
By WILLIAM HOWARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 8, 2017
NORWICH, England — A rare American accent was immediately evident among a British surgical team operating at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.
Maj. Richard Knight, a urologist with the 48th Medical Group based at RAF Lakenheath, led the British team during an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from a 71-year-old patient.
Knight is working in Norwich under an agreement established in January between the hospital and the 48th MDG.
His service here benefits not only the hospital, which has one of the highest workloads of surgery in England, but also the U.S. military by exposing him to techniques that can be applied to the battlefield.
“There’s many cancer cases that involve the airways as far as the larynx or vocal cords,” said Lt. Col. Jamie Swartz, otolaryngology chief with the 48th MDG. “If you’re taking it out for a cancer case, you’re better able to reconstruct it after a trauma case.”
Knight started working for Britain’s National Health Service in November 2014 and has performed more than 500 surgeries, as one of five active-duty urologists stationed in the U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa area of operations.
The military doctors have kept a full schedule at the civilian hospitals, treating a backlog of patients with ailments they rarely see on a base filled with relatively healthy servicemembers.
They also practice robot-assisted surgery, which allows doctors to operate with more precision, flexibility and control than with conventional techniques.
“You want to have surgeons who maintain their skills by continuing to operate and, from the U.S. Air Force’s perspective, maintain surgeons who are ready to deploy and take care of war fighters in a deployed scenario where you’ve got to be on your best game on short notice,” Knight said. “Having surgeons who are busy keeps them ready for those types of scenarios.”
The civilian doctors benefit, too.
“It’s not only helped us increase our productivity as a department, but for us as trainees, to have a view of doing surgery a different way,” said Omar Alkadhi, a urology resident who’s worked with Knight for the past six months. “Exchanging experiences is very valuable for us in our discipline.”
Peter Chapman, medical director at the hospital, said that the hospital is used to trading surgeons from all over the world. The hospital worked with American civilian doctors for decades prior to the military agreement.
“The feedback that I get from our surgeons on the ground is that work with them is very positive indeed,” Chapman said. “Which is actually what I expect from my own experience.”
Under the training program, medical specialists and nurses rotate between shifts on base and British hospitals; in the future, medical technicians may join the rotation.
“Because the U.S. and U.K. medical systems have been operating for years where your credentials are recognized on both sides, it was relatively easy,” said Col. Lee Williames, commander of the 48th MDG. “This is a relationship that is built on common goodwill and the idea that we both get something useful and valuable from the exchange. What we’re building is a long-term relationship.”
Every hour spent working off base is accounted for to ensure that there’s no neglect of servicemembers or their families and to keep medical staff ready for worldwide contingency operations.
“I think our system is well ahead of what everyone else is doing,” Williames said. “I can tell you by name how many cases they’ve done, what type of case and at which hospital.”
The feedback from higher command is so positive that the 48th MDG is slated to get additional staffing and an expanded mission from USAFE this year.
The 48th MDG has agreements with the university hospital and two others — West Suffolk Hospital and Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. There are plans to add the Royal London and St. Mary’s Hospital later this year.
The 48th MDG supports the 48th Fighter Wing, 100th Air Refueling Wing, 501st Combat Support Wing and the 352nd Special Operations Wing with health care services to servicemembers and dependents at six locations in the U.K. and Norway.