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Iraqi Forces Struggle to Find Physicians for Medical System

By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2008 – Though Iraq’s military medical system has gained significant capability over the past five years, recruiting qualified physicians remains a challenge, the coalition’s top advisor to the Iraqi surgeon general said.

Only 160 out of 800 available positions for physicians in the Iraqi military medical system have been filled, U.S. Army Col. (Dr.) John Powell, director of health affairs for Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq, told bloggers and online journalists in a teleconference Aug. 26.

“The biggest piece right now,” Powell said, “is personnel … who have medical capabilities, who can do what’s necessary to diagnose people and take care of them.”

Powell said the Iraqi government hopes to entice physicians, who fled Iraq to neighboring countries, to return now that Iraq is more secure. The Iraqi Defense Ministry has a pending law offering special incentives to physicians who serve the military medical system, he said.

“They’re working hard to get the people to come back who are trained and outside,” Powell said. “And, mostly, those are senior folks that can come in and teach and help get things back on what we would call a direct road for taking care of folks.”

However, he said, limits to the salaries Iraq’s government can offer returning physicians may become an issue. “Right now, it’s a matter of ‘Can you pay what I can make someplace else?’ and, probably, the answer is ‘No,’” He acknowledged. “But that said, there’s a lot of these people who want to come home.”

Iraq also is growing its own new generation of physicians, Powell said, through its “very capable” medical school in Baghdad, though courses are taught in English, which makes it difficult for native-Arabic speakers.

“I find it kind of interesting how difficult they have [it], as far as getting through school goes, and learning everything and trying to put it back and forth into Arabic,” Powell said. “But, they are growing their own physicians, and they’re good physicians.”

Despite the persistent challenge finding doctors, Powell said, the Iraqi military medical system has grown significantly in other areas since he was last in Iraq five years ago.

Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Samir A. Hassan, the surgeon general of Iraq’s armed forces, had almost no capabilities and only a couple staff members five years ago, Powell recalled. Today, he said, Hassan has 70 staff members with expertise in multiple areas including logistics, training, and long-term teaching and capabilities.

In the field, he continued, Iraq’s military medical system now employs around 100 nurses and about 2,000 employees in support positions, such as administrators, phlebotomists and ambulance drivers.

Along with the 160 physicians, Powell explained, these individuals run clinics located throughout Iraq, where active-duty Iraqi military and police are treated.

Powell assured that Hassan has a clear direction for Iraq’s military medical system. However, he said, more physicians are needed before some of the surgeon general’s loftier goals – such as extending care to military family members and widespread immunizations – can be realized.

(Kristen Noel works for the New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activity.)

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