How Improving Military Training Transferability Can Boost the Civilian Healthcare Workforce

Might there be a policy solution to improve both veteran integration into civilian life and our healthcare provider shortage? Military educational credit reform may be one solution.

Each year, over 250,000 service members transition out of the military back into civilian life.  Those departing from military healthcare positions could help counteract the impending healthcare workforce shortage.

States are specifically reporting shortages of emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Retiring combat medics could help fill this need. 

The problem is that the transition into the civilian healthcare workforce is not always smooth. Veterans face a barrage of obstacles to employment in the healthcare workforce. Military training doesn’t neatly translate into civilian academic requirements and returning veterans often find their practice authorities more limited in civilian settings.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that 7.2 percent of enlisted military personnel work in healthcare-related occupations. This means that in an average year, up to 18,000 military healthcare providers depart from active duty to seek civilian jobs. It would be beneficial to those providers and to American society if those transitioning personnel had a clearer pathway to fill current gaps in the healthcare workforce. 

An army medic, for example, learns valuable skills through a rigorous training program, yet those skills cannot be easily transferred to a job in the civilian workforce. One reason is that military training does not necessarily provide easily transferable academic credits.

Becoming a combat medic takes ten weeks of Basic Combat Training and sixteen weeks of Advanced Individual Training. On top of that, those entering a specialty branch of the services, like the Army Rangers, experience an intense 36-week Special Operations Combat Medics course. This provides greater in-depth training in the types of care that participants in Special Operations missions require.

While most medical professionals practice in safe, sterile environments, combat medics provide emergency medical care in dangerous, sometimes unsanitary environments on active battlefields, often without the direct supervision of a physician. At times, medics must make decisions and perform levels of care beyond the standard scope of practice for their civilian equivalents.

Upon returning home, without clear pathways to transfer their military experience, these individuals face a decrease in the scope of practice they once held.  Additionally, academic credentialing and scope of practice laws vary from state to state, making it difficult keep up with the requirements to practice.

As mentioned, ex-military healthcare workers can fill critical gaps in civilian EMT roles. States report that graduation numbers for EMTs are dropping substantially. In 2019, the state of Michigan reported the number of students graduating from paramedic training dropped from 1,200 students per year down to 250. 

The primary focus of EMTs is to provide basic emergency medical care and transportation for critical and emergent patients to access the emergency medical system. Retiring combat medics already possesses the knowledge and skills necessary to provide such basic patient care and transportation.

A principal obstacle to making good use of such experience is that military educational credits aren’t always transferrable to other institutions. This is because most military training programs aren’t regionally accredited, so civilian academic institutions are not obliged to recognize those credits.

This does not mean that military training programs are not held to high standards. To the contrary, the American Council on Education (ACE) vigorously examines military training programs and subsequently provides recommendations on their transferability. However, many colleges are unaware of this review process, and the resulting value of military training in general.

Though veterans sometimes lack direction upon retirement, those with medical experience could find their way in the health care work force.  Skills don’t vanish simply because one leaves the military. More flexible laws and better advertisement of career pathways can help move these highly skilled personnel into positions where they can benefit the larger society.  

Policymakers should consider how to better outline how military healthcare training translates to civilian academic credits and regulatory scope of practice laws. This will help veterans better integrate into civilian life while boosting the number of qualified healthcare workers. 

Photo credit: PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images