Army looking to better monitor service member wellness

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Through its Public Health Center, the Army keeps tabs on all of the factors that can affect the health of its forces as a whole. Its Health Promotion and Wellness Directorate focuses on the condition of individual soldiers. And its been building out capacity to ensure that each occupant of a uniform is at their best. At the Association of the U.S. Army conference, which concluded yesterday, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the Health Promotion and Wellness Director, Laura Mitvalsky.

Interview transcript:

Laura Mitvalsky: The Army Public Health Center actually is if you thought of the CDC, or the CDC for the Army, we always say. Everything from my director of Health Promotion and Wellness, but it runs the gamut of occupational health, industrial hygiene, toxicology lab, I mean, it’s a whole huge center of about 600 people. So I’m here as the director for Health Promotion and Wellness. just one of the directorates.

Tom Temin: Got it, okay. And the Army Wellness Center, those are pretty active places these days.

Laura Mitvalsky: They are, they are. So we have 35 centers across the Army. So in the Pacific, over in Europe, and then of course, across the continental United States. And we are calling them Army Wellness Centers slash Armed Forces Wellness Centers, because as we transition to the Defense Health Agency, human physiology is human physiology, right. So whether your soldier, sailor, marine, or airmen — my son’s an ROTC airman — that we can take care of all of those, those people who are struggling with weight, their runtimes, their PFT, their physical fitness, training, and tobacco – use all of the things that deter you from having optimized.

Tom Temin: And does this occur throughout the soldiers lifecycle as a soldier, that is to say they are inducted and then train presumably, and they come in with all sorts of states of big- small. But I imagine the wellness has to continue throughout the time they are a soldier after the initial training.

Laura Mitvalsky: Absolutely, absolutely. So we want to take people from the time they joined the military, because we’re the military is just a microcosm of the nation, right. So everyone coming into the DoD into the, whatever service they choose, are coming in with all different kinds of backgrounds and different physical fitness levels. So in the Army, we take them from the beginning, and we work with them all the way through. So wherever you go, it’s kind of like the MC wellness of the Army, right? So wherever you go, you can pick up and get those assessments. So if you’re struggling with your weight, when you’re at Fort Bragg, we’ll work with you and do a metabolic assessment on you, we can tell you within 25 calories within a 24 hour period, how many calories your body needs to maintain weight, lose weight, or gain weight. So depending upon what your health and wellness goal is, we can give you an exact test that’s based upon your physiology and then coach you as to how you can work towards that. whatever that goal is. Same thing with running, if you’re a slow runner, we’ll put you on a treadmill and VO2 Max and so then we’ll say okay, this is how you’re gonna improve your run time. So those are the kinds of things that we do in the center.

Tom Temin: I might want to drop in on myself.

Laura Mitvalsky: Absolutely. We have one at Fort Belvoir, it’s not far.

Tom Temin: But does the history show that say someone comes into the Army as a first time recruit, and they’re fat. And the Army training gets that out of them. And they are trim soldier at the end of basic training, but people tend to revert to whatever their metabolic DNA was beginning. So I imagine there’s the follow up is probably one of the most crucial things you do for people.

Laura Mitvalsky: Right. So it’s not so much their DNA, it’s more just behavior, right. It’s a modifiable risk factors. We have fast food everywhere, we don’t have environments that support a healthy change, right. So it’s very available, not during basic, but then as soon as you get out all of that’s available to you again. So the whole idea is how do you help people choose the healthy choices wherever they are, and get upstream of the problems that before they even become a problem. That’s really what this is all about is an upstream approach. It’s a really good book by Dan Heath called Upstream. And so it’s really getting upstream of the issues that we’re seeing in the military and trying to prevent them before they happen.

Tom Temin: And how do you interact with the different commands and different structures in the Army that are dealing with the soldiers as their employees so to speak?

Laura Mitvalsky: Right, right. So we have wellness centers, again, across the Army. So there’s wellness centers within FORSCOM, USARPAC, TradeUp, across the whole Army. So we make sure what’s really exciting about this program, because it’s the same wherever you go. We have a very robust evaluation and monitoring process so we can breathe to commanders, you know, you send your soldiers to us and we’re going to show you the impact of of them coming to the center and show you how they’ve improved their their performance and are more optimized.

Tom Temin: And by the way, how fast a mile should someone be able to run?

Laura Mitvalsky: It depends on your age. Not me, I’m not the runner.

Tom Temin: Well, I used to be so that’s why I always asked that question. We’re speaking with Laura Mitvalsky, she’s director for Health Promotions and Wellness at the Army Public Health Center. And with respect to Army families, increasingly this is being recognized as part of a soldier’s total health system. And you’ve got a new report on family health. Tell us what the elements of family health are and what you found.

Laura Mitvalsky: Thank you so much for asking that. So right after this interview, we’re going to be doing a panel. And our report is called Optimizing the Health of the Army Family. So it’s really a call to action. We do a report, which is called health of the force, which is really all around soldiers. If you went to the Army Public Health Center web page, you can find it. We’ve been doing it every year. And it’s really the health of this active duty population. So this is the optimizing the health of the family member. And there’s a great study out by OPA, Office of People Analytics, that says if you are the best predictor of whether a military member stays in the Army, is if their their spouse is satisfied with military life. So if you think about a family being happy with military life, that’s directly correlated to readiness and retention of our active duty soldiers. So 51% of our active duty soldiers are married, right. So we want to make sure that we are also helping to optimize the health of our Army family as well.

Tom Temin: There’s a lot of elements I imagine that go into that because it can be stressful with frequent moves to different locations. The presence of children is a major factor, I imagine.

Laura Mitvalsky: Yes. All of those things. And that’s exactly what this report is going to speaks to is what do we know now about the health of the Army family and the stressors on PCS moves as stressors, financial stress, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what those stressors are on the Army family, military spouse employment. All of those things, and there’s many agencies within the Army that are working hard to improve that each and every day.

Tom Temin: And your assessment methodology is survey, or do you have other metrics?

Laura Mitvalsky: So what’s really exciting about this report, similar to Help the Force is that Rand, OPA, Office of People Analytics, there’s so many different researchers and evaluators that are doing studies, the Millennium Cohort study, but they’re not all consolidated into one single report. And that’s what this is. So we’re not doing surveys, we’re actually pulling together 300 articles, peer reviewed articles, looking at all the different data sources that are out there, and then putting that into one report. So you could say, what do we need to do? And we’re providing some really actionable recommendations. So we’re excited to tell the group about it.

Tom Temin: But you found that those studies included enough military families to be able to have a statistical base you can rely on?

Laura Mitvalsky: Yes, but that’s a great point is that it’s very hard, still, to have data around our military family. And one of the efforts that Dr. Santo, one of my lead evaluators for this report that we’re waving at, is to see how can we work with agencies that are already doing surveys of our nation and then really carving out where our military families are, and being able to get some of those demographics who can really have a good idea of what they need and target.

Tom Temin: And how healthy is the military family?

Laura Mitvalsky: We’re a microcosm of the nation. I think people join the military because they want to be part of something bigger. They say it’s a family affair. Usually, people that join the military have families who are in the military, so there’s already a help focus there. So I think it’s a calling. So if there are soldiers trying to be healthy, I think the family tries to be healthy as well, too. But again..

Tom Temin: There’s issues.

Laura Mitvalsky: Yeah, because the environment needs to support that healthy change, housing, schools, food, healthy food choices. DCA is trying to put healthy grab and goes and they are commissaries. APC is trying to have bring healthy restaurants onto installation. So everyone is again, realizing how important that environment piece is for healthy change.

Tom Temin: Well, a lot of these fake hamburgers are already Army drab green. So maybe that’ll help get those sold. And your top two recommendations.

Laura Mitvalsky: My top two recommendations are for the report, open the report. If you’re a family member, we have recommendations for family members, if you’re a policymaker, we have recommendations for policymakers, we have recommendations for researchers. So just read the report and take some of those actionable recommendations and put them into the work that you’re doing. And then we can start to show our impact of improving. And in terms of the wellness centers. If you haven’t been to a wellness center and you’re a soldier or family member who’s struggling with weight, or if you’re struggling with run time, if you’re a tobacco user or if you feel you’re under stress, we have specific assessments that we can do to help you and then coach you through how to improve in those areas.

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