The Air Force continually evaluates the medical policies surrounding its Airmen, updating the policies as new data and research emerges.

This commitment to data-driven medical decisions and policy updates enables Airmen to fly safely and keep the mission on track.

Over the past five years, the Air Force has updated or created policies related to migraines, pregnancy, high cholesterol, post-traumatic stress disorder, refractive eye surgery, and COVID-19 .

“Policies are informed by a thorough review of medical literature and review of clinical events that may affect mission, flight safety and aircrew health,” said Colonel Amy Hicks, Chief of the Aeromedical Consulting Service Division of the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. “The Air Force airman population tends to be younger and healthier than found in the regular medical literature, so we also rely on data specific to our population, and we have this amazing resource of clinical cases and data related to these cases.”

Much of the data analysis studies that inform aviation policy come from the Aeromedical Advisory Service, or ACS, of the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine of the 711th Human Performance Wing, which is part of the lab Air Force research.

The research informs aviator medical policies and flight standards in two ways.

“There is a difference between research studies and analysis,” said Dr. Tanisha Hammill, chief of capability development division, office of the Air Force Surgeon. “When we analyze a database, it tends to translate more directly into policy changes. Then there’s the research that we do in a controlled lab environment where we take the results, translate them into results that would then be included in a risk assessment table. These long-term studies provide fundamental data that can help make population-level assessments and decisions.

Policy changes are also occurring gradually as medical research and data evolve, and waivers are constantly monitored to set new standards or clarify existing policies.

“We have this incredible resource of clinical cases and data related to those cases,” said Dr. Maximilian Lee, senior aerospace medicine consultant with the Aeromedical Consultation Service at the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine. “Through the way we are able to collect data, we are able to identify any issues or concerns that may be impacting standards, and we can review these Airmen over a longer period of time to see if we apply the right standards.”

Policy Changes

The Air Force, for example, updated its migraine policy by comparing data between Airmen and non-Airmen. The ACS considered aspects such as frequency, symptoms and medications to determine a flight status. Previously, airmen had to be migraine-free for a year. The policy now allows for a return to flight duties within three to six months for most Airmen.

In 2019, the Air Force updated its policy to allow certain fully qualified pilots to perform their duties while pregnant without a medical waiver. The Air Force clarified this policy, explaining that crew members can voluntarily request to fly during the second trimester with an uncomplicated pregnancy in non-ejection seat aircraft. All pregnant airwomen can apply for a waiver, regardless of trimester or aircraft.

While the majority of research and analysis has resulted in policy changes that have allowed more aviators to continue flying, there are a few instances where research has supported the opposite.

The Air Force has a policy in place to monitor Airmen’s recovery after testing positive for COVID-19.

“This policy helps detect cardiac inflammation following COVID infection and allows for full recovery to prevent this injury from getting worse,” said Col. Micah Schmidt, Medical Standards Program Leader, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “With proper treatment, individuals recover fully. But if this condition is not detected, then overexertion that leads to aggravation of injuries can be very harmful.

Currently researching

Each quarter, ACS members and key command representatives evaluate medical standards, reviewing data trends to support policy updates and to identify areas requiring further research.

A condition of interest is the occurrence of coronary artery disease.

“Currently, Airmen with coronary artery disease cannot fly high-performance aircraft, like an F-16, but we’ve evaluated that,” Hicks said. “We have granted waivers to allow airmen with coronary heart disease to fly non-performing aircraft. We are also reviewing the results again to see if there is room to expand the existing policy.

The ACS is also looking to assess how Airmen who have undergone cervical disc replacements might perform in flight. A cervical disc replacement is sometimes used to treat herniated discs, but there is incomplete information on how these devices would work in a high performance aircraft environment.

“Aerospace medicine gives confidence to our operators and our leaders, and to do that, we need to find a dynamic balance between safety and operational tasks,” Lee said. “If we are too cavalier, we put both the member and the mission at risk. Finding a balance is a major challenge in aerospace medicine and we must approach it with both experience and ongoing data to reevaluate our standards.

Date taken: 15.04.2022
Date posted: 15.04.2022 07:47
Story ID: 418568
Location: FALLS CHURCH, Virginia, USA

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