By Flight Lt. Tom van Dantzig
Aviation Medical Officer, Royal Australian Air Force
The Global Health Engagement Course at Rim of the Pacific 2016 in Hawaii was a relaxed introduction to how the military conducts humanitarian aid and disaster relief in the 21st century. It involved military personnel from China, South Korea, the U.S., Australia and Canada and it was a fun way to share experiences and common obstacles that militaries face when conducting humanitarian operations in the Pacific theatre. It was especially valuable because we rarely get the opportunity to talk face-to-face with our counterparts from China and South Korea. It was a relief to hear that they experience the same problems that we encounter when conducting humanitarian operations in the Pacific.
The first issue that surfaced during our multinational discussions at the symposium (a big thank you to the skilled interpreters who facilitated these discussions) was expectation management –both of our own medical teams and those of the host nation population. China and the U.S. both have dedicated hospital ships that are impressive and very capable medical units that include several operating rooms, intensive care units, medical imaging and hundreds of hospital beds onboard. The ships have a vast array of medical specialties and helicopters to transport patients and personnel to and from the ship. In this way, when these ships enter port in a third world country, they can set expectations for a very high level of care for the host nation population.
Similarly, the ship’s medical professionals are keen to provide care to a needy population that may not otherwise benefit from world-class healthcare. Problems arise when patients from the host nation require complex management of their conditions or long-term follow up by specialist teams. For example, patients may receive their complex operation onboard the hospital ship, but then require intensive monitoring and several months of follow up care, which cannot be provided by a ship that is only in port temporarily – for example, one month’s duration. Thus, the ship may elect not to perform complex operations – despite having this capability – because of the difficulties in maintaining continuity of care for these patients in the medium- to long-term future. This can cause frustration for both host nation and visiting medical specialists alike if expectations are not clearly formed from the outset. Establishing dialogue early in the planning phase of these operations, 12-18 months prior to commencement of humanitarian operations, is essential to clarifying expectations to prevent future disappointment and dissatisfaction with the medical care provided by visiting nations.
The second issue that arose during our discussions was interoperability. Being able to operate with other national militaries and government and non-government organisations in a humanitarian and disaster relief operation is paramount for the success of the program. The course highlighted the significance of all groups (government and non-government) uniting under a common leader, for example, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs during a humanitarian and disaster relief operation for the purpose of service coordination and allocation of tasks and assets to achieve mission objectives. This is hugely important given the many players and chaotic environment of humanitarian and disaster relief operations.
I would like to thank the U.S. Navy’s Center for Global Health Engagement for organizing this course and for providing the platform for several nations to come together and meet each other face-to-face to discuss how best we can work together to achieve our common objectives in providing the best healthcare possible in humanitarian and disaster relief operations around the Pacific.
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