The Untold Medical Benefit Published July 18, 2008 By Capt. Ben Sakrisson Air University Public Affairs Santa Maria, Panama -- Air Force doctors here July 12-26 are taking advantage of a unique benefit of being a doctor in the military, travelling to a foreign country and assisting people who can little afford the care. The doctors frequently encounter medical conditions that are not as prominent in the United States while deployed here for a Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE); an exercise designed to expose the medics to working in field settings. "If you are working in private practice it is difficult to go on missions like this," said Lt. Col. Joseph A. Lopez, the MEDRETE Panama Mission Commander deployed from the 42nd Medical Group at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. "It is cost prohibitive to bring all of the medical equipment and personnel, and even if a private organization will pay for the trip, they will not pay the salary of your staff back home." Many of the doctors here entered military medicine through the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). The program pays tuition, books and a stipend for four-year medical school programs and allied health professions; such as dental and optometry. It is competitive to enter the program and acceptance of the scholarship and comes with a one-for-one Air Force commitment for each year of schooling. Students in the HPSP program that did not graduate from the United States Air Force Academy or Reserve Officer Training Corps will attend the four-week Commissioned Officer Training at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., to earn their commission; an additional four months of military medical training is required at other locations. After completion of four years of medical school doctors must enter a medical specialty residency program. The residency program is typically three years long, though some doctors choose to cut their residency short at the minimum interval of one year to become a general medicine officer (GMO). Generally, at some point later in their career these docs will be required to finish the remainder of the three-year residency period. "All of my post-graduate training is on the job, said Capt. Derick A. Sager, a flight surgeon general medical officer from the 14th Medical Group at Columbus Air Force Base, Miss. "As a GMO I am licensed to practice medicine but not board certified in a particular medical specialty such as internal medicine or family medicine." Each year Congress determines the number of HPSP slots available and there is an overall quota for number of medical officers entering the service each year. In the four days that MEDRETE Panama has admitted patients thus far, a total of 2,350 were examined.