Defence medicine centre set for action

March 28, 2003

The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at Birmingham University is not yet two years old, but its staff are already facing their first war.

Described as the "home of tomorrow's military professorial staff", the centre is charged with "developing into the true alma mater for the Defence Medical Service (DMS) with a vision of research, teaching and training in the full panoply of military medicine".

It falls under the remit of the Defence Medical Education and Training Agency, a newly established body entrusted with providing medical support to the UK's front-line forces. The centre is a partnership between Birmingham's Medical School and the University Hospital Birmingham National Health Service Trust.

When it was opened in April 2001, William Doe, dean of the medical school, said: "The contribution that a major medical school can make to the effective work of the centre is very important. We will provide training for the medical staff in the latest medical advances and carry out research that will enhance the treatment of injured and ill service men and women."

Back in the days before September 11 2001, much of the school's work focused on peace-keeping activities. Professor Doe said: "The role of the military is changing and now includes peace-keeping tasks, often undertaken at very short notice. We shall increase our work in the areas of refugee medicine, tropical medicine and the problems of service personnel exposed to unusual and rare diseases around the world."

Today, the centre is faced with addressing the effects of war. The situation is made all the more difficult as defence medicine, along with the entire NHS, is dogged by staff shortages.

A spokesman for the agency said: "For some years the Defence Medical Service has been short of trained clinical manpower through personnel retention problems. Those remaining have had to endure a greater incidence of turbulence and operational duty than before, and that was planned for at the outset. The grass has often looked greener on the other, NHS, side."

He explained that there were key differences between military and civil medicine. "In military terms, healthcare is a chain of actions from stabilisation in the field to recovery and a return to active duty. The psychological pressures can be intense. Military medics often have to work in isolation, away from first-hand reference material."

Telemedicine, the ability of a medic in the field to call on expert medical opinion in the UK via a satellite connection, was crucial, said the spokesman. The agency is also responsible for the Defence Postgraduate Medical Deanery which has close links with the University of Birmingham and the West Midlands Deanery.

The agency's key educational facility, the DMS training centre, is near Aldershot. It runs medical services training for about 7,000 trainees every year. It delivers most of its training directly, but also works with universities to deliver graduate training.

The agency manages five Ministry of Defence hospital units, which are integrated in NHS acute hospitals. These units are home to the trained clinical staff of the DMS, who have to be in a permanent state of readiness to be called out on active duty.

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