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Military Health System Leaders Discuss Leveraging Technology to Improve Patient Care at First-Ever Summit

Image of Military Health System Leaders Discuss Leveraging Technology to Improve Patient Care at First-Ever Summit. Defense Health Agency Director U.S. Army Lt. Gen Telita Crosland discusses the future of technology in health care in the Military Health System while speaking in the plenary session of the first Digital Health Transformation Summit in Bethesda, Maryland, Dec. 6-7. (Photo: Robert Hammer, MHS Communications)

The future of technology in health care was the topic of the day at the Digital Health Transformation Summit in Bethesda, Maryland, on Dec. 6, 2023.

The summit, titled “Empowering the Future: The Military Health System’s Digital Revolution,” brought together leaders from the Defense Health Agency, the Uniformed Services University, U.S. Department of Health Human Services, and academia to discuss how this digital transformation will shape the future of the MHS.

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, president of the Uniformed Services University, discussed the importance of understanding that the nation was going through a fourth industrial revolution. “It’s just like the prior revolutions that fundamentally changed everything in terms of how we lived, worked, and played. And it will change health care,” he said.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez discussed how the MHS needs to be prepared for future conflicts that may look different than in the present and those in the recent past.

“Nowhere are these challenges more apparent than in military medicine … we must look at every available technological advance in moving people and material. Advances in drone capabilities, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and in robot-aided treatment–it must be accelerated,” said Martinez.

Martinez also shared insight into how technology has shaped the treating of the warfighter in the field, enabling more service members to survive their wounds, and gain access to long-term health care.

DHA Director U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland emphasized how important technology and digital transformation is to the DHA.

“No other health system in the world has as much at stake as the MHS in a digital transformation to prepare for our future challenges,” said Crosland. “We need to be leaders in identifying how to care for our people using technology that is available today and that can be scaled tomorrow.”

“I'm not exaggerating when I say that there is not a more important topic for all of us in military medicine. The breakthroughs happening in medical technology and in artificial intelligence are not just central to our responsibilities as medical professionals—they’re central to our responsibility as national security professionals.”

Senior leaders agreed with the need for a transformational digital change for the MHS, but also the need to be methodical and cautious in this change.

“We know the only way to face these challenges is head-on. Deliberately, thoughtfully, and collaboratively,” said Martinez. “Digital health transformation is the key enabling capability of our overall strategy.

Digital Transformation isn’t Just About Technology

“The changes we seek are to make health care better,” said Crosland. “Not to fall in love with technology.”

“Our principal focus is on how to re-design health care in the face of scarcity and distance. Technology is there to help us, and it’s poised to bring about much greater help. We are the change agents, not the technology.”

She talked about how beneficiaries want a health care system that “meets their needs” and helps them live productive lives.

“They want great care, anytime, anywhere—always,” Crosland said. “The pandemic showed that patients are capable and ready to manage more of their care in the digital space. We need to make that easier for them.”

Partnerships Vital to Strategic Digital Transformation

Having partnerships with academia, private industry, and other DOD entities were mentioned as being important during this digital transformation of the MHS.

“We do very little alone,” said Crosland. “We need more partnerships in more places with other federal and civilian health systems–where our teams go to keep their clinical skills up. We need more partnerships with industry to use technology wisely so that our inclination is to think ‘virtual first.’”

“Organizational agility is the requirement, where we’re prepared to respond quickly and competently to events that unfold on a moment's notice. We must be creative and open minded … and above all, we need to be inclined to help and respond to problems,” said Crosland. “Together, with your help over the next few days, we will fundamentally change the landscape of military health utilizing converging 21st-century exponential technologies. It is health that connects, tech that cares.”

Projects for a Technologically Focused MHS

“We’ve taken some steps already to better use virtual health capabilities and are poised to do more,” said Crosland.

She said the DHA launched the Behavioral-Health Resources and Virtual Experience, or BRAVE, program to expand in-house offering of virtual mental health service to service members and their families. It started in 2022 with 16 military hospitals and clinics, and now is available at 43, with the expectation to add an additional 14 in the future.

In September 2023, a new vendor was hired to help the DHA to prioritize requirements with the new electronic health record system to enable the agency’s digital strategy.

As a larger project aimed to test new ideas and technologies, five sites were selected as “proof-of-concept” medical facilities to deploy digital health capabilities that can be scaled in the future.

Topics Explored During the Summit

Throughout the two-day event, participants learned about and discussed issues like creating a different model for primary health care, reimagining federal agencies for an innovative era, leveraging digital technology for designing health care systems, artificial intelligence, and transforming medical education for a digital world.

“We cannot achieve our vision nor realize any of our goals without a far-reaching, imaginative and realistic digital transformation,” said Martinez. “The MHS that emerges from the implementation of our strategy must be radically different in design, in operations, and in outcomes than the MHS of today. There is no turning back.”

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Last Updated: December 19, 2023
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