Medical Officers are the Army’s healing leaders

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Article / November 18, 2015 / Project number: 15-0012

Toronto, Ontario — Major David Coker says being a Medical Officer in the Canadian Army has given him experiences that wouldn’t have been available anywhere else.

Being a trauma team leader at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Air Field in 2010 was, the physician explains, not a glamorous experience, but still a rewarding and a positive one.

It was certainly challenging, don’t get me wrong. I was scared and stressed as anyone would be when I started for sure, but then as I worked with the team, you know, we got really good at it very quickly. It’s all about the teamwork. That type of experience is unique to the military.

The health of soldiers is not going to stop being something that will need to be addressed,” Maj Coker says of the Army’s ongoing need for Medical Officers. “As we learn more and more about mental health, that is certainly an issue that will continue to need to be addressed, so recruiting more doctors is something that needs to be done.

Maj Coker, who plans to remain in the military, says he was driven to join by a desire to serve that comes from a strong family tradition.

Both my grandfathers were military. One was in the Canadian Army and one was in the Royal Canadian Navy and both served in the Second World War. I’m a proud Canadian; I love our country and I think the forces are our representation of that abroad.

Prior to becoming an Army doctor, Maj Coker first earned a degree in chemical and materials engineering through the Royal Military College in Kingston. Though he was impressed by the College’s blend of academics, physical fitness and leadership training, Maj Coker wasn’t initially certain the military life would be a good personal fit. But he successfully completed a trial semester, later graduated near the top of his class and joined the Army as an Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (EME) Officer.

He was then posted to a British Army unit as a platoon commander from September 2001 to December 2003. During that time, the unit was rotated to Kosovo. “At that point, the war was over, but we were still doing peacekeeping functions,” he explained.  

It was an amazing experience for me as a young guy going to live in England for two years and while I was in England going to do a six- or seven- month tour in Kosovo,” he recalls. “While I was there, because I spoke French, I got to get attached to a British English speaking liaison officer who was working with a battalion of French infantry.

At the age of 26, after serving three and a half years as an EME Officer working to maintain equipment, Maj Coker opted to switch his focus to maintaining the Army’s human assets instead and enrolled in medical school with financial support from the Army.

I enjoy medicine. I genuinely do. There are truly some days where you feel you have really helped someone with a medical issue, be that a broken arm or a mental health matter or another medical problem.

As in all aspects of military life, the role of Medical Officer comes with challenges, particularly family-related.

There is stress on family,” Maj Coker says. “You want to really make sure that if you have a spouse and you have kids that your spouse at least understands that you’re going to move somewhat regularly.

He adds that another challenge for Medical Officers is balancing the kind of leadership roles that come with moving up in the ranks and the need to maintain and upgrade medical skills.

That is for sure the most common reason for concern. When you are in the HQ in an administrative function you aren’t seeing patients anymore; you are not in a clinic setting.

That said, Maj Coker notes ongoing learning is very much a part of the Army culture.

We do have specialty expertise in the Forces that are supposed to keep us up to speed on certain aspects of medicine and particularly military medicine. So those people are embedded in our health care system within the military and that’s an asset.

The Medical Officer role comes with opportunities for members to train in a wide variety of specializations.

I am a general duty Medical Officer. That’s like being a family physician. We also have anesthesia, general surgery, orthopedic surgery, psychiatry, radiology and internal medicine options that you can specialize in. You can take it in a civilian university or have the training and then join. There are also post-graduate opportunities in occupational health, undersea and flight medicine, and emergency medicine.

As Maj Coker prepares to move into a new leadership role, that of Commanding Officer and Base Surgeon of 32 Canadian Forces Health Services Centre in Toronto, he offers a snapshot of the qualities required to reach similar career heights.

You need to be disciplined with respect to your studies, your physical fitness, your stress management strategies. You need to want leadership roles. And flexibility is important. There will be tons of things that won’t be in your control and having the ability to just roll with things and adapt to changing circumstances is key, I think.

Quick Facts about Medical Officers in the Canadian Army:

  • Medical Officers are doctors who provide primary health care services for Forces members, whether on a base in Canada or in support of battlefield operations, peacekeeping or humanitarian missions around the globe.
  • The primary responsibilities of a Medical Officer are to lead a clinical team of highly trained professionals; promote health protection and education; provide primary health care; practice environmental medicine, including high-altitude and hyperbaric medicine and promote occupational health and safety.
  • Following basic officer training at the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Medical Officers attend the Canadian Forces Medical Services School in Borden, Ontario, where they are introduced to the structure and history of the organization and the unique circumstances of practicing military medicine. Environmental training, an operational requirement, includes field exercises that may take place anywhere in the world.
  • Medical Officers may apply for the opportunity to specialize their medical practice in exchange for additional years of service. The Forces will subsidize the following medical specializations: acute care, emergency medicine, surgery, orthopaedic surgery, anaesthesiology, internal medicine, psychiatry, and radiology.
  • Medical Officers who demonstrate the required ability and potential will be offered advanced training. Available training includes: public health medicine, occupational medicine, aerospace medicine, tropical medicine, epidemiology, and health care administration.

In closing, Maj Coker notes that, “You get to practice medicine and help people, which is probably the best part. And, of course, the friends that you make are amazing. Probably everybody says that but one of the things about the military, to a certain extent, it’s a big family so when you’re going through good times or bad times, it’s your buddies that help you get through it.

By Lynn Capuano and Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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