Editor's note: The following is an op-ed piece submitted by the office of Senator Dick Durbing (D-IL).
Illinois is lucky to have some of the finest medical experts and dedicated staff who work every day to make certain that service members and veterans are receiving the best medical care our nation has to offer.
But after more than ten years of war, the skill set required to provide state-of-the-art care has become increasingly complex – particularly in the fields of prosthetics and orthotics, where demand is at an all-time high.
Each year, the Department of Veterans Affairs serves approximately 40,000 individuals with limb loss due to combat-related injuries or chronic illness. Advances in medical technology have greatly increased the survival rate for even the most grievously wounded service members, but many of those survivors still lose limbs due to their injuries.
Over 1,700 individuals have suffered combat-related limb loss in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remarkably, there are at least 160 service members who have had a complete loss of an arm, leg, hand or foot who have remained on active duty
While prosthetic and orthotic technology has progressed by leaps and bounds in recent years, our ability to use that technology for the most effective care possible has not kept pace.
There are just over 7,100 practitioners specially trained in prosthetics and orthotics nationwide. Of those, one in five are either past retirement age or eligible to retire in the next 5 years. In 20 years’ time, almost half the field will retire – a projected 3,000 practitioners.
We need to act now. Last week, I introduced two pieces of legislation that would enhance research in best practices and support colleges and universities seeking to establish degree programs to train specialists.
The first, the Wounded Warrior Workforce Enhancement Act of 2013, would authorize a competitive grant program to help colleges and universities develop master’s degree programs focusing on orthotics and prosthetics.
There are only a dozen schools around the country with master’s degree programs in this field. My legislation would help these schools expand and encourage other schools to upgrade their existing bachelor’s degree program to a master’s degree program.
The bill also requires the establishment of a Center of Excellence in Prosthetic and Orthotic Education to help schools integrate the latest science and techniques into their classrooms.
The second bill, the Wounded Warrior Research Enhancement Act of 2013, would establish the first centralized collection of outcomes-based research on orthotics and prosthetics.
Currently many practitioners rely on personal experience and trial-and-error methods, rather than empirical data, to determine which prosthetic device will work best for a given patient. With a large portion of these seasoned clinicians facing retirement in the coming decade, it is imperative that we harness this tremendous resource of institutional knowledge before we lose it forever.
My legislation would create a system of “best practices” to give caregivers the knowledge they need to better match prosthetic and orthotic devices with individual patients, saving time and money by improving the likelihood that a veteran’s first prosthetic will also be the best. Many medical fields do this, but not prosthetics and orthotics.
Small investments like this will go far to ensure that this field will be healthy for many years to come, and ultimately make sure we honor our promise to America’s wounded warriors.
In an era of tight budgets and Washington looking at ways to spend dollars wisely, improving the lives of our injured service members and veterans is a smart investment. We owe it to them.
Dick Durbin is the senior U.S. Senator for Illinois