By Derrick Crawford
5th Medical Recruiting Battalion
May 9, 2018
FREDRICKSBURG, Texas -- An orthopedic surgeon and 23-year military veteran with 10 deployments has seen his share of tough duty.
Yet, for U.S. Army Reserve Col. Paul Phillips III, convincing other orthopedic surgeons to practice in uniform may be his most challenging job yet.
Phillips is part of the orthopedic surgery team at Hill Country Memorial Medical Group here in his hometown when he's not serving in uniform as chief of Professional Services with the 228th Combat Support Hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston.
However, it's his role as a consultant to the U.S. Army Surgeon General where he's directly helping the 5th Medical Recruiting Battalion's healthcare recruiters tackle a shortage of USAR orthopedic surgeons, which he says is "at a critical wartime low."
According to Phillips, as of April 2018, only 15 percent of the roughly 166 authorized Reserve orthopedic surgeon positions are filled with deployable physicians and cites a "similar but much less dramatic" shortage in other critical USAR medical specialties such as general surgeons and emergency medicine physicians.
"This is a cry for help in the wilderness," he said, "and so we are screaming, I am screaming, to let people know what our need is."
With that in mind, Phillips has made it his mission to answer the call by being personally engaged in the Reserve healthcare recruiting mission.
"Instead of asking (recruits) to come to us, we're taking the mountain to them and trying to make sure we tell the story accurately, to let them know that there is an opportunity and a way that you can balance both private practice and military service," Phillips said.
Phillips is one of the hundreds of Army Medicine subject-matter experts who help healthcare recruiters recruit medical students and physicians nationwide, says Lt. Col. Julie Hundertmark, physician recruiting integration officer, U.S. Army Medical Recruiting Brigade, Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Hundertmark links SMEs with recruiters and coordinates their participation at local recruiting events to facilitate peer-to-peer interactions, which she says can have the greatest impact on a candidate's decision.
"Most physicians just want to hear it like it is from someone who does their job, not from someone who is trying to explain someone else's job," Hundertmark said.
If anyone is up to the task it is Phillips, said Maj. Tamela L. Mitchenor, officer in charge of the San Antonio Medical Recruiting Station, who credits him with directly contributing to commitments she's received from several physicians. She says SMEs like Phillips immediately establish credibility with potential recruits.
Robert Innes, the 5th MRB mission and marketing analyst, helps guide "who, where and how" battalion recruiters target eligible students and physicians in their respective areas. Innes, a former Army recruiter, says an SME's ability to connect the dots for potential recruits makes their assistance invaluable.
"Right now when they ask folks in the field, they have no clue about what Army Medicine is all about. If you could have an SME at every, single Army (recruiting) event to tell the Army story and to tell what they do in the Army, that would be the perfect scenario. The recruiter does not have enough information and cannot become an expert at any specialty to tell that story," Innes said.
Phillips says he understands what healthcare recruiters are up against -- the fear of the unknown in students and physicians with little knowledge about military service. He doesn't dodge concerns recruits may have about meeting the demands of military service while continuing in their civilian practice or the negative feedback that sometimes comes from former reservists who are unhappy with their own experiences.
"We give them truth, and we tell them, 'Here's the real deal of what it's like when you finish up (medical school),'" Phillips said. "You may be getting paid $200,000, $300,000 a year (in the private sector), but a fourth of that is going to pay back your student loans."
He knows from personal experience how beneficial USAR educational programs can be, having had his civilian fellowship training funded through the Specialized Training Assistance Program. STRAP pays a monthly stipend of approximately $2,200 while students attend school.
It is one of several Army education benefit programs aimed at alleviating the financial burden of medical school and residency. Another, is the F. Edward Hébert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program, better known as HPSP, which pays both full medical school tuition and a monthly stipend of more than $2,200. Eligible students and board-certified physicians who participate in the programs incur a service obligation based on the respective program and level of support they receive.
Along with continued efforts to inform civilian orthopedic surgeons on the benefits of USAR service, Phillips says he is considering a change in the emphasis on who is targeted and how they are asked to serve. He believes the USAR can gain ground by directly engaging active duty orthopedic surgeons before they leave service and by creating a more flexible system for them to fulfill their Reserve service commitment.
For instance, he explains, "(The monthly drill) doesn't always have to be at the unit ..., but sometimes they can be drilling at another unit or another facility, or they can be in a continuing medical education course that allows them to have that same time and still get paid and still get the credit, as far as points toward their retirement."
The bottom line, as far as Phillips is concerned, is that nonstop communication is crucial to not only draw both active duty and private practice physicians to USAR service, but also vital in retaining current USAR physicians. His unwavering message to anyone who'll listen is that his career is proof that it is possible to successfully balance both military service and private practice.
With a full schedule treating all types of bone fractures, hip replacements and the assortment of strains, sprains and injuries, Phillips estimates he treats 50 to 60 patients during the three days he works in the clinic. He says he typically performs operations on the other two or three days each week. Additionally, he's the on-call physician after hours one day each month for any emergency cases. Nonetheless, Phillips says he, and other reservists like him, make it work.
"There's a cost for being in medicine, there's a cost for driving your car, and there's a cost for serving in the military," he said. "Some people are willing and able to meet that cost, whether it's time-wise or financial-wise or just getting deployed overseas. There is a cost, but to me that is worth the lives of the men and women we get to touch."
Learn more about medical careers and benefits available in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve at http://goarmy.com/amedd.html.