Barriers to seeking care

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jonathan Eckley
  • 21st Medical Squadron

When our active duty members need medical care, there can be numerous perceived barriers that discourage them from seeking treatment. While folks may be struggling, whether with physical or mental health issues, they may be concerned with the unintended consequences that come with seeking care. Whether it is the space operator concerned with losing their clearance, the security forces Airman wanting to avoid a “Do Not Arm” status or the personnelist who has too much work to leave the office to be seen; the barriers to seeking care sometimes outweigh the desire to be healed. Across the Air Force and the Department of Defense, these perceptions can be one of the contributing factors to some of the highest rates of suicide we have ever had within the service community. 

As a patient, I have been there. When I was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, I worked in Area B and the Medical Group was in Area A. The drive to get from my office to my doctor was similar to being assigned to Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado and needing to attend an appointment at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. My desire to be present, so my co-workers wouldn’t have to pick up my slack, led to me avoiding care. I went through two significant surgeries in my time there and still managed to be seen less than 15 times in four years. This avoidance to getting much needed care has resulted in significant, long-term issues that will affect me the rest of my life. The lesson learned from this is to not let perceived inconvenience be a barrier in obtaining needed medical care.

So where do we go from here?  First, we need to dispel some of the misconceptions people have toward accessing care. For example, while there are no guarantees that seeking mental health care will not impact your clearance, less than 0.5% of members experience any impact; and those that do, the impact is typically related to negative behaviors that may have been avoided with early intervention. Far more common is folks getting care, getting healthy and returning to full duty status with no long-term consequences on their clearance. Secondly, not seeking care due to fear of being away from the office too often can lead to delays that can worsen the medical condition. The better option is to be seen, such as going to physical therapy for a few weeks, and thereby preventing potential issues with your deployability and retainability. Delays in treatment lead to more appointments, more time away from the office, less desirable outcomes, and can cause the member to have to undergo a medical evaluation board. Finally, pride is a significant barrier to seeking care, particularly with higher ranking individuals.  The perceived expectation for senior leaders to “have it all together” sometimes deters members from admitting they need help; when in practice, seeking care early helps individuals be more resilient, not only for themselves but also for the people they are charged to lead.

The aim of the Air Force Medical Service is to deliver accessible, safe and quality medical care—what the AFMS calls trusted care. As such, we encourage all members to seek care early and be a proactive participant in their healthcare. This has been shown to increase positive outcomes, allowing more members to return to full service with less long-term impacts on their readiness. If you need to access medical services, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us at 719-524-CARE.