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  • Envision Team

The Future of Medicine in the Military

Warfare has always been a focal point of researching new technologies. Everything from the Internet to penicillin started out as methods to get the edge in war. Technologies starting as military necessities trickle down for non-military use. What are these technologies and what are the ramifications of military research?

The United States military is one of the largest single investors in research, spending over 7.5 billion USD annually. Most researchers in the United States have realized that either they accept funding for the military or they won’t get funding at all. Unfortunately, the overall percentage of federal funding in research has been falling since the end of World War II and has recently fallen to a record low of 44% and other than the department of health and human services, has the most resources for research.

For most of the military’s history, the guiding principle was that the quicker a wounded person gets to a hospital, the better chances of survival they’ll have. During the Invasion of Iraq, the United States researched methods to decrease the time to hospital and implemented new systems of triage - another military invention (albeit from the Napoleonic wars). These combined into a system that allowed for a 90% recovery rate. Since our withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the few units that remain and see combat are small-scale commando style groups that wouldn’t be able to get back in time to major trauma centers to maintain that high survival rate. Instead the defense department has budgeted larger amounts to medical research that would help immediately and could be carried on someone’s person.

One of the projects that the military helped fund was X-STAT, a syringe filled with incredibly absorbent tiny sponges that get pumped into the wound. These expand, providing pressure that stops the external bleeding. They’ve already started to be introduced into the military, saving its first life in 2016. Any mass casualty event where it could take significant time before the injured could get medical attention would be a prime usage of technologies like X-STAT.

The X-STAT syringe. Notice the small white sponges in the canister.

The Department of Veterans Affairs also has a lot of research funding. As they have a responsibility to heal America’s veterans with any issues, not just those arising out of combat, they often get research funding that can be used for non-military applications. The VA is one of the largest investors in prosthetic limb replacement as well as visual replacement. They’re also an example of single-payer healthcare.

Since 1862, the US military has been funding research for prosthetic limb replacements. Today, roughly 2 million Americans - military and otherwise - have had their limbs replaced by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Much of the newest technologies involving prosthetic limb replacement comes directly from research in the DVA. One of the most notable developments is the “blade runner leg” - pictured below - which allows prosthetic users to do advanced exercise, where walking was the most conventional prosthetic users could expect.

A prosthetic leg optimized for running.

The department of the VA also funds visual rehabilitation research. Many veterans are losing their sight due to old age and since the VA has a responsibility to heal America’s veterans, they are responsible to help with their cataracts in old age. The VA has been instrumental in providing research funding for cataract research.

While it is not ideal that military is the basis of funding for these projects, it is good that these projects are getting funded. Military projects like X-Stat and the VA’s funding of medical science is fundamental to modern science. The only question is how do we use these medical advances?

Possible advances

With the pace of modern technological progress as quick as it is, it's hard to guess what will come next, however some likely possibilities are:

  • Next-generation limb replacement with enhanced sensors

  • Advanced optical replacements

  • Phages to replace antibiotics

  • Advances in triage implementation

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