FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AFNS) —
The Air Force Medical Service’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted their inaugural Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility conference May 24, with a thematic focus on informing attendees on the latest AFMS initiatives and inspiriting further action.
The virtual conference, led by Lt. Col. Mikel Merritt, AFMS Diversity and Inclusion chief, and Rudolph Dockery, AFMS Diversity and Inclusion program manager, included speakers focused on how diversity and inclusion impacts the overall medical mission, readiness and the everyday lives of Airmen and Guardians.
“As we enhance the inclusivity of our culture, we will ultimately become better at producing world-class ready medics,” said Lt. Gen. Robert Miller, Air Force surgeon general, in a video message presented during the conference. “One of my goals is to educate our medics until [diversity, equity and inclusion] become second nature as the AFMS improves how our culture welcomes and respects every member of our team.”
Brig. Gen. Alfred Flowers Jr., AFMS Manpower, Personnel and Resources director, also shared comments about the conference and what listeners should take away from it.
“How are you going to take the goals from the amazing docket of speakers, from updates of information that has been researched? How are you going to continue to be informed and inspire current leaders and into the future?” Flowers asked. “Thank you all for your sense of commitment from being on the line today. Thank you for your open-mindedness, and thank you for what I know you will do in the future to further inform and inspire others around the world.”
Representatives from various initiative teams and working groups shared their team’s work, their perspectives and personal experiences, how they have informed the teams’ missions, and the many ways they have helped to shape important changes and necessary policies throughout the Department of the Air Force.
The groups working towards addressing barriers and inequalities within the AFMS and throughout the Department of the Air Force included the Disability Action Team, the Black and African American Employment Strategies Team, the Hispanic Empowerment and Advancement Team whose work includes addressing perceived language barriers, the LGBTQ+ Initiative Team, Indigenous Nations Equality Team who have addressed issues of religious accommodations, the Pacific Islander and Asian American Community Team, and the Women’s Initiative Team that was established in 2008 and whose more than 600 volunteer members are working on 52 lines of effort.
Merritt also stressed how important the AFMS Office of Diversity and Inclusion is for medical Airmen and leadership.
“We all have blind spots … and there are things you’re not going to take into account,” Merritt said. “If, for example, there are a bunch of men writing policy, there are things they are not going to consider, and that is going to have an impact on our readiness. It is going to make us a less successful force. It is going to make us less able to prepare our patients to be medically ready, as well as prepare our teams to be medically ready. That is why diversity and inclusion is vital.”
The AFMS’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion addresses barriers through monthly meetings and training across major commands and medical groups, producing toolkits and monthly newsletters to help leaders discuss diversity and inclusion, as well as addressing retention and recruitment needs.
“One of my goals is to educate our medics until [diversity, equity and inclusion] become second nature as the AFMS improves how our culture welcomes and respects every member of our team,” Miller said.
Tracey Koehlmoos, Ph.D., director of the Center for Health Services Research and Director of Doctoral Programs in Public Health with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, discussed research on racial disparities in health care, including impact on access to care and health outcomes. She shared a recent systematic review of disparities within the Military Health System where her team noted that universal health coverage mitigated racial disparities that have otherwise been found in private-sector care. Koehlmoos further emphasized that more research needs to be done to ensure equal and equitable care by identifying additional factors that could contribute to racial disparities.
“We have miles to go, both in terms of what we know about disparities in care that’s received in the private and direct-care system, but also … we have got to get out there and talk to service members and their families … to learn what their experience is in the health care system,” Koehlmoos said.
Finally, Merritt and Dockery welcomed two keynote speakers to the conference. Trayvon Jenifer, a three-time Paralympian who was born missing both of his legs, shared how he overcome this obstacle to become a world-class athlete. And Dr. Dave Prakash, an Air Force veteran, former test pilot and flight surgeon, closed the conference, sharing his own challenges when he initially joined the Air Force and how vital mentorship and belonging allowed him to pursue becoming a flight surgeon.
“For marginalized groups or people that are overlooked, mentorship can have an outsized effect,” Prakash said. “It is important to understand that [diversity, equity and inclusion] is not about counting how many minorities have been elevated to a particular rank or position. The purpose is to ensure that we do not overlook talent … and that by fostering such talent, you make for a more capable AFMS.”