Dr. Ronald Blanck, D.O., recently became the president of the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Prior to this post, he had a distinguished career in the United States Army.
After getting an undergraduate degree at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Dr. Blanck matriculated at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He received his Doctor of Osteopathy degree from the school in 1967. Dr. Blanck volunteered for the draft and was sent to Vietnam as a general medical officer in 1968. While in Vietnam, he was awarded a Bronze Star for his efforts as a battalion surgeon. Upon his return to the United States, Dr. Blanck completed a residency in internal medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
During his distinguished 31-year career in the US Army, he served as Army Surgeon General and Commander of the US Army Medical Command. He was responsible for 46,000 military personnel, 26,000 civilian employees, and a $6 billion budget to provide medical care to armed forces all over the world. Dr. Blanck retired from the military as a three-star general and the highest-ranking physician in the US Armed Forces, the first osteopath to attain the honor.
Medtech1: You were the first D.O. to serve as Army Surgeon General. How do you think your osteopathic training prepared you for your position?
The focus of any of the osteopathic education programs is probably 90 percent the same as any medical school. The difference has to do with what I’ll call the holistic approach. That is a word that is kind of overused, but it really is holistic—D.O.’s are trained to focus on the whole patient—mind body and spirit and look at patients as people rather than as those with disease. So, you tend to get a more preventive health promotion orientation and you’re very patient oriented. The army gave me the opportunity to really focus on the patients because we didn’t have to worry about their ability to pay, and I think it was a perfect match with that background and the opportunities the army offered.
Medtech1: What are some health problems specifically found in military personnel?
We start off with very healthy people, and then they get injured or wounded if it is a combat situation. We worry about those kinds of things particularly applicable to military forces—it’s kind of a big occupational medicine sort of thing. But we go beyond what people would commonly think of as military risks. When we deploy to far-flung lands, we are facing unusual infectious diseases and very different environmental hazards than what you might find in the United States. Things are different in the military than in civilian life, and so there are those kinds of unique health problems. Other than that, things are kind of the same as in any other population. We have the families of our military personnel as well as a huge retiree population, so we have to not only focus the challenges faced by troops overseas, but also the same kinds of problems that any other population has, such as heart disease, cancer, and appendectomies. We have to have a spectrum of health care providers available.
Medtech1: Would you say that some of your training has prepared you better because you are apt to look at things more holistically?
I’m not sure I’d say better, but, in a way, more completely because the military is a perfect model to apply health promotion and prevention principles. We have a population that can really do excellent prenatal care. We don’t have all the disparities that exist in civilian care. We can make sure that everyone gets their immunizations as they should and we can have them in for periodic physicals and get things early. We even started using the electronic beam computed tomography that can view coronary arteries non-invasively. We can see the presence of coronary artery disease and we can do the appropriate cholesterol lowering, put them on the right diet, or start an exercise program and actually prevent the progression of this process. It saves lives and prevents coronary bypasses down the road.
We’re putting something here at the Health Sciences Center that is actually the next generation of that kind of technology. It does colonoscopies with no invasion-- no tubes. It does gasteroscopies, it sees pancreases, it sees ovaries, and we can pick up ovarian cancer early. You add to that some of the genetic testing we are beginning to be able to do, looking at risk factors, and you are talking about a whole different way of examining patients early and finding disease. It is a powerful tool to modify behaviors, as well as to enable us to do the relevant interventions.
Medtech1: As a doctor in the military, has it been easy for you to get funding for medical initiatives?
We were able to get a fair amount of funding for research, because Congress and other organizations increasingly see the military as a place where a lot of other technologies, such as vaccines, can be developed. I had laboratories in Thailand and in Kenya, the Navy had labs in Indonesia and Cairo and Peru, and we jointly staff some of them. All of them are designed to look at emerging infectious diseases, vaccines, and drug medication trials. I told you that some of the work we did was technology with non-invasive imaging. Some of it also deals with information systems. We have a dog tag that actually has a chip in it that holds a substantial amount of a person’s medical record. We have tested it and it is being deployed to Bosnia or Kosovo in some of the soldiers there. You just take it and put it in a little slot in your mouse, or you can go in the modem port of a laptop, and medical information pops up on the screen. We’re doing personal status monitoring that can actually locate a soldier anywhere they are. If a soldier is wounded or missing, we know where we need to go to get them. We also have evacuation devices, the L-STT, the Life Support Treatment and Transport, which is basically a mini-ICU on a stretcher that is just dynamite. The military is at the leading edge of lots of those technologies.
Medtech1: It makes perfect sense that the military would be a perfect model for testing medical devices, but I never realized that.
People don’t think of it. Water purification, which is probably the single biggest public health measure that has allowed us to increase our health, was developed by the military. Kidney dialysis—the military developed it in Korea. Vascular surgery was military developed. Air evacuation was also military developed. Most of the vaccines we have are military developed. We have the new Hepatitis-A vaccine, malaria vaccines, and HIV vaccines. I have tried to continue some of the work on these kinds of technologies at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, in my new job.
Medtech1: You speak about "unleashing creative potential", and then you apply this phrase to developing advanced medical technologies. Could you discuss a couple of medical advances you were responsible for while in the Army?
Both the L-STT, the ICU on a stretcher and the electronic dog tags are two advanced medical technologies. Telemedicine has been largely developed by the military, because we send people all over the place. For example, I didn’t put a pathologist in Alaska anymore because it wasn’t necessary. If we did a biopsy, we could stick it under a microscope, digitize it and send it to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington and, in an hour, they come back with a pathological reading of the specimen. We can do that with radiology; we can do it with psychiatry consults. We can do it with all sorts of things, so the military has been on the leading edge of very powerful technology. What we’re trying to do is set up a system that we digitize and web-enable. So, if someone gets a chest X-ray in San Antonio and then a week later has to go to Bosnia, and someone over there need to compare it to an old one, they just reach out over the web and pull it up and there it is.
Medtech1: What are some of your objectives as the incoming President at the University of North Texas Health Science Center?
Down here, we are focusing on trying to build collaborations with other health care entities within the city and the larger region. We are trying to share our expertise in public health and in health care by doing first-responder training. We are setting up a simulator center for medical student education so doctors from other hospitals can come and use them. The other side is biotech development and a lot of our science faculty is doing very exciting work. We have patents, so we turn out companies from an incubator here in town. There was a news release last week about a cardiac device that a company in California is putting out that was based on the development done here. It just never ends—a lot of biotechnology continues here.
Photo courtesy of The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth