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The Special Relationship between the USAF and NHS
The connection between the 48th Medical Group and the NHS in the UK continues to strengthen
In 2017, we reported on the growing partnership between the US Air Force at RAF Lakenheath and nearby NHS hospitals, which sees American personnel working alongside NHS staff to treat patients. The co-operation between the US and the NHS began in 2001, with a partnership between RAF Lakenheath and Cambridge University Hospital. By 2017, this had grown to a partnership with three NHS hospitals including Cambridge, Norfolk Norwich University Hospital and West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust Hospital. As of 2018, that had expanded to five connections, also including Royal London Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital. With recent developments indicating that the special relationship between the USAF 48th Medical Group and the NHS is only growing stronger, we spoke with personnel at RAF Lakenheath to help explain the 48th Medical Group-NHS Partnership, and introduce you to some of the Americans who are working with the NHS as part of the program.
How has the partnership grown since 2017?
In 2017, then Deputy Medical Group Commander, Col. Bradley Nielsen, explained that the partnership program was beneficial to both US forces and the UK. "We are very fortunate to have such a strong partnership with these NHS hospitals" he said, "Partnerships like this are critical to sustaining readiness for medical Airmen and to maintain currency in their specialties. Keeping our Airmen local means lower costs, plus spending less time away from families improves morale during their training ... At the NHS facilities, our general surgeons are able to see far more complicated surgeries than they would at our MTF ... At RAF Lakenheath, we mostly perform less intensive inpatient surgeries, like laparoscopic and same-day surgeries that do not prepare staff for the type of trauma cases seen in the deployed environment. Our partnerships are critical to maintain ready deployable medical providers." Discussing the benefits to working together, Col. Nielsen explained that "Our surgeons are sharing US surgical techniques with our UK hosts, and we are learning from them as well ... We are looking to build on this success to expand this opportunity for other regional Airmen and even other service personnel stationed elsewhere in Europe ... Opening the partnership to other larger hospitals and new specialties will help close the currency gap for the medical and nursing staff and will strengthen the relationship with a key ally."
During 2018, the partnership became more established. In October 2018, executives and surgeons from Cambridge University Hospital visited RAF Lakenheath, taking in a tour of the station's hospital as well as the 493nd Figher Squadron. Col. William Malloy, 48th Medical Group hospital administrator, highlighted the growing partnership by explaining "We saw the significant impact the program was having even on a relatively small scale and have been working over the past several years to expand it further ... I have been very encouraged by the overwhelming response from our Airmen, as well as from our partners in the NHS ... RAF Lakenheath has a responsibility to prepare our medical experts for the battlefield, so they’re prepared to take care of our brothers and sisters in arms when called on to do so ... This program is so much more than a convenient way for us to maintain our proficiency though. It’s a testament to both our nations’ shared dedication to the patients we serve."
Dr. Ashley Shaw, Cambridge University Hospitals executive medical director, reiterated the benefits for both the US and UK by explaining that "Having the Americans working in our hospital with us has been immensely beneficial for everyone involved, from the practitioners to the patients ... This has been tremendous for the NHS staff and the team at RAF Lakenheath. I am proud of the care we are providing together and am excited for what is to come next."
What is it like for Americans working with Brits on the partnership?
To truly understand how American airmen are finding the experience, we decided to ask those who are part of the program! Before we spoke with two members of the USAF, RAF Lakenheath posted an interesting news item on their website explaining the work of Tech. Sgt. Amy Templeton, who had taken on a role at West Suffolk Hospital. You can read Amy's story via the RAF Lakenheath website.
Kyle J. Iverson, MD (Major, USAF) and Michelle M. Rice (Senior Airman, USAF) told us about some of their experiences.
How are you finding the experience of working with the NHS?
Kyle J. Iverson: My experience has been exceptional! It is an honor and privilege to be given the responsibility of helping with the care of our host nation’s patients. Everyone has been very welcoming and excited to have us as a part of their team.
Michelle M. Rice: It has truly been a privilege to work with the NHS staff. I had the honor to work at West Suffolk hospital where the staff immediately made me feel at home and went out of their way to find certain cases I don’t get to see on a day-to-day basis. We are fortunate to have such a healthy patient population in the Air Force, however we don’t often get the chance to utilize our skills in a real-world patient setting as often as we may like to. This partnership with the NHS gives our members the opportunity to apply those skills and gain experience that is invaluable.
How has communication with your British colleagues been given that wonderful notion of Americans and Brits being "separated by a common language"!?
Kyle J. Iverson: One of the biggest shocks has been the different names of tools that are used in the operating room. Although the common goal and direction of operations are generally the same, there are subtly different nuances. I think this has certainly been a bigger challenge than I anticipated.
Michelle M. Rice: The staff at the NHS and I exchanged a lot of laughs with one another. In the medical field, terminology is important. It took me a day to learn the British medical language. On my first day, when a nurse asked me to get some "obs" on a patient, I was a little confused. I asked her what "obs" stood for and she replied "observations." I looked at the patient and said "She looks like she is getting some color back." I immediately got some giggles in response. Observations are vital signs. I learned that one quickly. "Cannula’s" was another term I was not familiar with. It means IV/blood draw. We also took a few tea breaks throughout the shift. I incorporate tea time on my shifts at Lakenheath now.
What has working with the NHS given you to help your work with the USAF?
Kyle J. Iverson: Without a doubt, my ability to be a part of bigger operations in the community has strengthened my confidence and competency. This is invaluable to our Airmen. They deserve the best care possible and by keeping our skills razor sharp, we are able to provide it.
Michelle M. Rice: Before working with the NHS I knew I had the knowledge and the training to perform the tasks of my job, but after leaving West Suffolk I felt confident in my abilities. As a new Airman who has only had clinical experience, working in an Emergency department with a wide variety of patients intimidated me. That went away after leaving the NHS. When you get to experience a patient’s family thank you for saving their loved one’s life, it forever changes you. This experience gave me so much pride in my job and gave me a sense that I’m right where I belong. I would go back to work with the NHS in a heartbeat.
What about the future?
Since the first co-operation was set up in 2001, there has been a huge growth in the partnership between the NHS and the 48th Medical Group at RAF Lakenheath. One hospital partnership has developed into five, and the signs are that these links will continue to grow. Speaking in 2018, Dr Stephen Dunn, Chief Executive of the West Suffolk Foundation Trust, explained that "for us this is a really really important program. We're heavily invested in it, we see some fantastic outcomes, we see some fantastic sharing of ideas. We see real improvement happening as a consequence of the sharing of lessons and people." He went on to say "We're absolutely committed" to the partnership, saying "we want to do more of it, and we think this is an international, innovative program that is really unique, and must be supported."
That sense is echoed from personnel at RAF Lakenheath. Col. William Malloy said "We will continuing to look for way ways to grow and improve the program ... It’s an important way for us to maintain readiness, and we are so grateful for the trust and support our NHS partners have given us."
With the NHS being such an important treasure to the UK, it's a wonderful example of the Special Relationship for this unique partnership between the US Air Force in the UK and the British Health Service to flourish.
To find out more about the 48th Medical Group-NHS Partnership, check out these links: