Many of us see images of a Special Forces soldier or a tank when we think of the Army, while failing to realize the host of scientific developments taking place within the ranks. As West Point graduate and highly regarded Army physician Dr. Kevin K. Chung told us during an interview, advances in medicine are often sparked by the “desperation” of researchers and clinicians working for the wartime military:
This happens every time there’s a war. In WWII we had the advent of antibiotics. Antibiotics were used for the first time widely to treat combat wound infection, and that changed the game. Penicillin, that’s a WWII product. I would say that the biggest advances, over the last decade, have been the balanced resuscitation concept and critical care air transport – the ability to transport critically ill patients over long distances anywhere in the world. Those are two concepts that, I would say, are the signatures of this war.
Chung, who works with the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center in San Antonio, TX, has been a powerful force for innovative care, both on the battlefield and in the lab. In fact, one of the themes that emerged during our conversation with the doctor was the idea that, in the age of smart technology, these two areas can be harmonized.
For instance, guiding a remote medical robot designed by InTouch from room to room, Chung was able to check up on his patients in San Antonio even while stationed in Baghdad. And on the low-tech side (relative to robotics, at least) the abundance of reliable smartphone technology has enabled clinicians to communicate with soldiers and care providers around the world – reducing the need for costly transport to specialty facilities.
According to Chung, this move toward remote care, brought on by the U.S. military’s current need to cope with multiple theaters of war, has revolutionized the clinical world in general:
It’s no longer “telemedicine.” It’s now medicine. It’s in the mainstream. I think telemedicine had a bad name, a bad reputation for a long time, because the technology wasn’t there; it wasn’t reliable. But now that the technology is there we don’t think twice about, say, FaceTiming with a patient.
To support this shift, Chung and his team at the institute have developed methods and technologies suited for mobile medicine, including a decision support algorithm that’s being used by both military and civilian hospitals to treat burn patients.
Last year up to 10% of all burns across the country were resuscitated using this… [It] essentially standardizes resuscitation regardless of where you are, whether you’re in the field, whether you’re in the hospital, or whether you’re in the middle of nowhere in Iraq.
However, just because these innovations allow for medical treatment from a distance doesn’t mean that Chung and physicians like him are aloof from the boots-on-the-ground view of war. Recounting his service in Baghdad in 2008, Chung described it as something he would “never forget”:
We were getting bombed on a regular basis. We were in the Green Zone, the Baghdad ER. We were getting wave after wave of casualties. That was during the peak of combat operations, during the middle of a surge…Every day we felt like there was the possibility of a rocket going through our hospital.
That disaster brings out the best in humanity is another old adage. And the same may be true for medicine, and for people like Dr. Kevin Chung.