The military medical community provides medical care and preventive health care for deployed troops, as well as psychological support and veterinary care. It also provides essential deployment support, such as force health protection, medical intelligence, and medical logistics and supply. Civilian-military cooperation, mainly during disaster relief, mass casualty situations and population movements, can be a mission for military medical support as well. Medical support is one of the key planning domains for operations.
- The COMEDS is NATO’s senior body on military health matters.
- It aims to improve coordination, standardization and interoperability in the medical field and the exchange of information between NATO and partner countries.
- It also develops new concepts of medical support for operations, with emphasis on multinational health care, modularity of medical treatment facilities and partnerships.
- The COMEDS is headed by a Chairman and meets biannually in plenary session with representatives from NATO and partner countries.
- The committee was established in 1994 when the need for coordinating medical support in peacekeeping, disaster relief and humanitarian operations became vital for NATO.
The military health support system aims to preserve or restore the health of NATO personnel and consequently to contribute to preserving the operational capacity of NATO forces.
It means that medical support is not only curative medicine for deployed personnel, but it covers the complete range of human and animal curative and preventive medicine. The military medical support embraces the medical support of combats, as well as medical general practice, force health protection before and during deployments, medical logistics and supply, medical intelligence and the medical dimension of the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) warfare. The civilian-military cooperation in the medical area is very important during disaster relief, mass casualty situations and population movements, the military medical support may be involved in these missions too.
During NATO operations, medical support is usually provided by troop-contributing countries - Allies or partners - who also carry the responsibility for having enough well-educated medical support to perform state-of-the-art medical service. Nevertheless, the medical support command and control is a NATO function, performed by Joint Medical (JMed) Staff Branches within Allied Commands. Since medical support is a transversal element of the operations, the medical heads of these JMed Staff Branches are the Medical Advisors (MedAd) of the commanders. Thereby the commanders can rely on accurate and relevant advice about all medical related issues and challenges essential to the planning and conduct of any mission.
The Medical Advisors from the International Military Staff (IMS) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT) support the NATO capability development in the medical domain. This is conducted in order to help Allies reach the NATO Level of Ambition regarding medical support, to support the development of new capabilities and to improve cooperation in multinational capacities.
Beyond the medical support of NATO operations, COMEDS represents the members’ health services on the NATO Military Committee (MC). The COMEDS was established in 1994 to advise the MC on all military health matters affecting NATO and reports to it once a year. Since there is no equivalent on the political side, if needed, COMEDS can be asked to report to the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political decision-making body.
COMEDS meets in plenary session twice a year. It is headed by a chairman, who is elected among the members’ surgeons general for a three-year period. The secretary of the COMEDS, designated for three years aside the chairman, is assigned full-time to NATO Headquarters as COMEDS executive officer.
The COMEDS steers Allied medical doctrine and interoperability development within NATO and its member countries. It does this in collaboration with the NATO Standardization Office (NSO), and through several working groups and panels that are populated by national subject-matter experts from both Allied and partner countries.
The COMEDS and the NATO strategic-level Medical Advisors work together to improve medical support in a multinational dimension. Since the deployed troops and medical assets are usually from different countries, the ongoing challenge is to provide the highest level of care and prevention to everyone with a unified, comprehensive, medical support composed of harmonised national assets. Medical interoperability addresses this challenge with Standardization Agreements (STANAGs).
Supporting the efforts of the medical community, the Centre of Excellence for Military Medicine (MILMED COE) in Budapest (Hungary) - with a satellite branch in Munich (Germany) - takes part in military medical training, the lessons learned process and interoperability development.
Moreover, multinational training and exercises are used to improve multinational medical support. Numerous NATO medical courses are performed by the NATO School in Oberammergau (Germany) or the MILMED COE. NATO medical exercises are organised regularly, for instance Vigorous Warrior exercises give the medical troops a platform to conduct multinational training and the Clean Care exercises support the medical part of CBRN. These exercises have been alternating every second year for almost a decade. The medical community also provides real-life support to all NATO exercises.
The NATO medical community is preparing to face the next challenges. An ACT document entitled “Framework for Future Alliance Operations” lists the potential future events, crises or conflicts that NATO may face over the next 15 years. Many of these are of direct concern to the military medical community. Scenarios like mass migration, the use of weapons of mass destruction, mega-city turmoil, etc. are extremely challenging from a medical viewpoint, pushing the medical community to continuously adapt and improve, find alternative treatments, processes or capacities.
The COMEDS Futures Advisory Board (CFAB), in collaboration with the NATO Science and Technology Organization (STO) and Allied Command Transformation for medical capability building (Smart Defence Initiatives, Framework Nation Concept Medical Cluster) support preparations for future military medical challenges.