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Iraqis Make Advancements in Medical Training

By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2010 – Medical professionals in Iraq are making advancements in training – and, ultimately, in saving lives -- with the assistance of U.S. forces.

“We don’t need to pity the health system here,” Army Col. (Dr.) Andrew Kosmowski, physician advisor for the training and advisory mission in Iraq’s defense ministry, said during a "DoDLive" bloggers roundtable yesterday. “I think they are at an exciting time and crossroads. They are rebuilding at a time of modern medicine.”

He was joined on the conference call by Dr. Adel Hansen, linguist and medical advisor with U.S. Forces Iraq health affairs, and Army Col. Bernard DeKoning, senior medical advisor for the advisory and training mission in Iraq’s interior ministry.

At one time, the Iraqi health care system was the envy of the region, DeKoning said. The Iraqis now are rebuilding with help from U.S. forces.

The medical system in Iraq is divided among the defense, interior and health ministries. The health ministry portion is the largest and most robust, Kosmowski said, serving the civilian population. The defense ministry runs the healthcare system for the Iraqi military, and the interior ministry supports the national police.

During the insurgency, most of Iraq’s medical capability disappeared. “There were sanctions and other events that happened that hindered health care,” Kosmowski explained.

Terrorists also targeted medical professionals, forcing close to 90 percent of them to flee the country. “You could get assassinated just for wearing a lab coat,” Hanson said.

The Iraqi medical community now is using MI-17 helicopters as a medical response force and has personnel trained to take care of patients while in flight. But they still lack experience, Kosmowski said, so ongoing mentoring continues between U.S. advisors and Iraqi flight medics in care and helicopter operations.

Medical professionals are learning their new skills in a training wing of a schoolhouse and are in the process of building a small-scale army medical department adjacent to the civilian “medical city” in downtown Baghdad.

The teams are learning basic medical skills, medical logistics and advanced flight medic training. DeKoning said the military medic school turns out about 1,500 to 1,800 trained medics per year in six-week cycles at nine locations. The Iraqis are beginning to assume control of this training, he added, and offering classes in which they “train the trainer.”

“We are working with them to train them for what they need for the future,” Kosmowski said.

One of the biggest challenges facing health affairs in the defense and interior ministries is retention. The health ministry provides better pay, a choice of relocation and more flexibility, which makes it difficult to keep personnel who have been trained. But many doctors who worked in the Iraqi medical system before the insurgency are now coming back, DeKoning noted.

“Over the last 10 to 11 months, a number of physicians have returned and have gone into the ministry of health and defense,” he said. “It shows that people have not lost faith with their country.”

Now, there’s an air of optimism and excitement about the future of the Iraqi health care system.

“They are well poised to develop a world-class medical system,” Kosmowski said. He noted that Iraq’s medical professionals figuratively had been locked in a closet for the past 35 years and now are interacting with the medical community from the outside world.

“They’ve been beaten down, but they can build back stronger,” Kosmowski said. “It's a very hopeful time. I think they have a great future.”

(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)

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