Transferring experience

Veterans who specialized in military health meet roadblocks in being able to use skills in civilian jobs

March 30, 2007|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,Sun reporter

You might say Patrick Hyde has experience delivering medical care under extreme pressure.

As a Navy medical corpsman in Iraq, he suffered a serious arm injury when his Humvee was blasted by a roadside bomb. Before dealing with his arm, he tended to one comrade with a severe leg injury, another with a face wound, reaching into his duffel-bag-sized kit for medications and equipment.

Then, he told the others how to care for him. "I directed the soldiers to apply a battle dressing and give me an IV," he recounted. He was taken by helicopter to a base for further treatment, eventually undergoing seven surgeries and a four-month rehabilitation. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

But, he said, he and other military medics don't have an easy time transferring their skills and experience to civilian medical jobs - at a time when hospitals in Maryland and elsewhere are scrambling to find clinical workers with technical training. "They walk out of the Navy with a skill, and they have nowhere to put it," Hyde said.

He testified in Annapolis this month on a bill that would direct the state health secretary and other regulators to study how to make it easier for military health workers to qualify for civilian licensing. The bill passed the House of Delegates 136-to-0 last week and was sent to the Senate.

The bill is strongly supported by hospitals, a coalition of veterans groups, the Governor's Workforce Investment Board and the trade association for community health centers. The Maryland Board of Physicians, which regulates physician assistants, radiation technicians, respiratory care practitioners and the technicians who do sleep testing, said it was "fearful" that an effort to remove barriers "might result in a lowering of standards."

Given current shortages of clinical workers, easing the transition makes sense for Maryland, supporters say.

A survey by the Maryland Hospital Association, released last August, reported vacancy rates of 13.5 percent for physician assistants, 9.8 percent for laboratory assistants, 14 percent for nuclear medicine technologists and 18.5 percent for physical therapists.

At the same time, military bases in the state provide a source of people leaving the military with clinical training. In the past fiscal year, 483 personnel from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, most with medical training, participated in a Department of Labor transition counseling program, said Stan Seidel, Baltimore office director of the department's program to help veterans.

As an independent duty corpsman, Hyde, who currently sees patients and plans training of corpsmen at Bethesda, worked outside the range of close supervision by doctors - on ships and on remote bases as well as in combat.

A 19-year veteran, he would like to be a civilian physician assistant when he leaves the military but his military training doesn't count as the academic credits - the equivalent of a master's degree - needed to qualify for a license.

"You have all the skills, but you just don't have the paperwork," he said.

Military health people say they not only have skills and experience, but also an extra edge that comes from working in a challenging environment.

"I feel like they gave you the knowledge, but most of all they gave you the ability to work in a new environment and pick up things fast," said Alison Carnegie. After six months of Army classroom work and six months of on-the-job training in an Army hospital, she worked as a laboratory technician at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Now she is a lab technician testing newborns in an intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was able to complete a bachelor's degree in the Army, taking some courses online as well as lab courses - "you can't learn organic chemistry online" - at the Community College of Baltimore County. Still, she said, "If I had more credit for my military experience, it would be very, very helpful."

Jerral Behnke, dean of academic governance and development, Naval Medicine Manpower Personnel Training and Education Command, said that some military health jobs can confer civilian certification, but others do not. His office, at the Bethesda facility, works to train naval health personnel.

When he retired as a corpsman 29 years ago, he said he wanted to be a physician assistant, but with three children in high school, "I couldn't take two years to go to school." Instead, he wound up with an administrative job.

Behnke said the problem is a national one. California is beginning to experiment with online courses to speed the transition, he said.

Warren Green, who pushed the concept that led to the bill, deals daily with the staff shortages as chief executive officer of LifeBridge Health, which operates Sinai and Northwest hospitals. He's also familiar with the work of military medics, although he wasn't one himself.

"I can hardly peel a Band-Aid," he said.

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