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Mayo Clinic grows its military connections

November 11, 2018

Medical care and the military might seem to be an unusual pairing, but Mayo Clinic and the U.S. Department of Defense have a long history of working together on multimillion-dollar contracts and research grants.

The creation of Mayo Clinic’s Department of Defense Medical Research Office in 2014 has spurred the growth of that relationship. Four years ago, Mayo Clinic had $4.3 million in federal research grants and contracts from the DoD. That number more than doubled to $10.3 million by 2017, according to Dr. Peter Amadio, medical director for the office.

Those numbers do not include Mayo Clinic’s non-research contracts with the Department of Defense, due to confidentiality agreements, said Amadio.

A government spending database listed Mayo Clinic’s total Defense Department grants plus contracts and other payments at $17.2 million for 2018. That’s up from $10.8 million in 2016. Mayo Clinic could not confirm those figures, citing confidentiality agreements and differences in accounting practices.

While the National Institute for Health is still the largest source of federal research grants for Mayo Clinic, the Defense Department piece of the Mayo Clinic federal funding fits a different niche.

“NIH (National Institute of Health) is mostly interested in the quality of science … not necessarily in the immediacy of potential benefits to human health. The Department of Defense is much more focused on things that can be translated to something you can buy at Walmart or Walgreens,” Amadio said. “Their focus is getting something we can deliver to a person. That’s also our focus.”

Back in motion

The Motion Analysis Laboratory on the fourth floor of the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center is one area that often works with millions of dollars in funding from the military.

After losing a leg or possibly two in combat, U.S. soldiers struggle with adapting to walking with one or two prosthesis. Falls are common, with two-thirds of people with above-the-knee amputations falling at least once a month. Each fall can incur up to $6,000 in medical costs, as well as delaying the patient’s recovery.

Helping those people recover and possibly return to the military is one focus of Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Kenton Kaufman and the Motion Analysis Laboratory.

“It’s like learning to ride a bike,” said Kaufman as a resident wearing a safety harness walked on a treadmill, demonstrating the lab’s training procedure. The walker, suspended from the harness, had to react to 30 to 45 sudden changes in speed or direction to keep from falling.

About 30 percent to 40 percent of the lab’s work is funded by the Defense Department, Kaufman estimated.

Kaufman and his team of 15 in the Motion Lab have developed a program to train patients who have lost legs or had traumatic injuries to walk more safely. In the 1980s, about 2 percent of military personnel who lost a limb returned to active duty.

“Today about 20 percent of military personnel with amputation return to active duty,” Kaufman said.

Of those that go back to duty, about one-fourth return to possible combat situations.

However, the program’s benefits extend beyond working with people with leg amputations.

The average number of falls for ordinary, older adults drops by about half after they undergo the training, Kaufman said.

The motion lab sees about 500 patients a year undergo the two-week training sessions. The three military hospitals now offer the training for their personnel.

The DoD also helps partially fund other research by the lab, as well as a $5 million contract led by the National Institute Health to create the first national database of amputees.

The practice of the military working with medical personnel to help amputees dates back to the Civil War. Kaufman notes many advances in prosthesis have been spurred by war.

‘G-suit’ for a dollar

The relationship between Mayo Clinic and the Defense Department can be traced back to Dr. William Worrall Mayo’s work with the Union Army during the Civil War. Best known is Mayo Clinic’s help developing the “G-suit” for military pilots in World War II and with the pilot Charles Lindbergh on how to survive parachute jumps.

However, things have changed since those early days of working with the military.

Mayo Clinic spent $2 million to develop the flight suit for pilots during World War II and then sold it to the U.S. government for $1.

Mayo Clinic CEO Dr. John Noseworthy quipped earlier this year that “We’re never doing that again,” causing his audience to laugh.

Working with the Defense Department brings in millions annually to Mayo Clinic, though it is only a fraction of the total amount of federally funded contracts and grants.

USASpending.org reported Mayo Foundation has locked in a total of $198 million in federal contracts, grants and other deals in 2018. That’s a spike from a total of $21.8 million in 2017 and $17.7 million in 2016.

Due to differences in accounting, Mayo Clinic was not able to confirm those figures.

The largest part of the federal funding to Mayo Clinic entities comes from the National Institute of Health, followed by the Department of Justice.

Amadio estimated the Department of Defense accounts for about 5 percent of the total federal funding Mayo Clinic receives each year.

“That’s why we’d like to kick it up a little bit. It should be closer to 10 (percent),” he said.

The Defense Department’s “gigantic” annual budget of more than $600 billion makes it a potentially lucrative agency for Mayo Clinic, added Amadio.

“About $2 billion of that is health-related to keep personnel healthy … There are about 9 million people who have their health care provided by the Department of Defense,” he said. “It’s a big health-care organization.”

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