Training the Air Force's Medical Leaders

  • Published
  • By Jay Marquart
  • 711 HPW
Trusted with providing medical care to pilots, aircrew members, and other aviation personnel so they remain fit for duty, Air Force flight surgeons are vital to the success of Team Aerospace. These dedicated professionals work tirelessly and enjoy a well-earned sense of accomplishment from keeping their units mission ready. That is the reason they became "flight docs."

After serving in operations for a while, some flight surgeons discover they prefer focusing on broader medical issues than the ones normally encountered in flight units or the exam room. They like the idea of using their skills to impact large populations, and they want to acquire leadership capabilities that will enable them to take charge of medical preparations for deployments, coordinate with authorities during emergencies, or serve as the point person to a wing commander on medical issues.

For these flight surgeons, the path to such opportunities runs through the US Air Force Residency in Aerospace Medicine, or RAM, program. Part of the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, Brooks City-Base, Texas, the RAM program combines advanced education in aerospace medicine and other medical disciplines with field and clinical experience, plus a wide-ranging leadership training curriculum. RAM graduates are equipped for various medical leadership roles within the Air Force that involve supervising teams of 40 or more people. An example is serving as a Chief of Aerospace Medicine at an Air Force base.

"Once you become a RAM, your responsibilities are broader and, to a great extent, deeper," said Colonel Thomas Luna, Associate Dean for Aerospace Medicine at USAFSAM. "Students who enter the RAM are definitely interested in going into a leadership track."

Admission requirements for the RAM program are rigorous. Candidates must be flight surgeons with two-plus years of operational experience. Through an alternate pathway, select medical students may apply for a program that sequences the RAM to follow a residency in family medicine, with a year of operational experience as a flight surgeon inserted between the two residencies. The standards are high because the RAM is intensive.

Typically, the RAM program takes three years to complete. In the first year, known as Phase I, or the academic phase, students earn their master's degree in public health, a coveted credential. This sets the stage for the rest of their residency.

The second year, or Phase II, is the Aerospace Medicine Practicum year. During this time, students learn about the many facets of aerospace medicine, participate in clinical work at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and other places, and complete courses such as investigating plane crashes and communicating with the public on medical topics of concern. In between, they study at facilities such as the Johnson Space Center and conduct research. Those completing Phase II are eligible to take specialty board certification exams in aerospace medicine.

In Phase III of the RAM, students complete the requirements for specialty board eligibility in occupational medicine or general preventive medicine/public health.  Additionally, they study topics such as medical readiness, management, and leadership.

"The RAM program is rewarding but can be challenging," said Major Erich Schroeder, a third-year RAM student. "You have a lot of things you're juggling. But I like the program. It's good, even if it just taught the leadership and management subjects."

Alternatively, flight surgeons who lack a full residency can follow a five-year RAM program that allows them to complete residencies in both aerospace medicine and family medicine. And for select medical students, a six-year program lets them complete aerospace and family medicine residencies, plus gain valuable operational experience.

Three-, five-, or six-year track, the demands of the RAM are steep - but worth it, according to those involved with the program. For Colonel Luna, it creates the opportunity to be a pioneer: "Whenever there's a new medical mission, the Air Force tends to push a RAM toward it, because the RAMs have such broad training. That's part of the fun of being a RAM."

To Major Schroeder, the RAM program is all about leading by serving: "Knowing what the warfighter needs and how to best support those needs are what the RAM helps us do. It suits me career-wise with where I want to serve, volunteer, and contribute."