A Closer Look at Serving as an Audiologist or SLP in Uniform

“Fully immersed within [the] Navajo culture, I have been able to establish rapport with my patients, their families, and the community. They expect my services to habilitate or rehabilitate them through quality continuity of care for themselves, their children, and their elders,” says Commander Eric Cala, MA, CCC-SLP, as he describes the impact of his service as an officer for the Indian Health Services with the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS). He is stationed at the Chinle Service Unit, a hardship duty station in the heart of the Navajo Nation.

Commander Cala is one of 17 audiologists and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) currently serving as a part of the USPHS Commissioned Corps. The USPHS protects, promotes, and advances the health and safety of our Nation. It allows you to serve your country, travel, and make an impact as an audiologist or SLP like no other setting. Many officers build a career with USPHS and serve for 20 years or more. It is often called a “best-kept secret,” with most professionals only learning about USPHS through referral or by chance.

What Do Audiologists and SLPs Do in the USPHS?

Audiologists and SLPs serving in the USPHS provide health care delivery to underserved and vulnerable populations, disease control and prevention, biomedical research, food and drug regulation, mental health, and drug abuse services, and they respond to natural and man-made disasters as an essential component of the largest public health program in the world.

Some of their day-to-day responsibilities may include the following:

  • Promoting the public health of the United States
  • Providing rehabilitation services
  • Improving the health care system, including the development of innovations in health care
  • Expanding national health resources

Captain David Byrne, PhD, CCC-A, a lead audiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describes working in public health. “While clinical audiology does the important work of helping each individual with hearing loss, public health audiology works on a more global level to reduce hearing risks and prevent hearing loss . . . . public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations; audiologists in the USPHS connect with populations—as small as a local community, or as big as the entire country.”

Service Options

Officers serve in federal agencies at duty stations in urban, rural, and remote settings. Here are a few examples of current officers’ appointments:

  • Lieutenant Commander Carla Chase, SLPD, CCC-SLP, serves as the Shared Savings Program liaison, embedded within the Quality Payment Program for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). The goal of the Quality Payment Program is to move CMS away from paying for volume and toward paying for value and quality care based on specific outcome measures.
  • Commander Cathleen Davies, MS, CCC-SLP, has served as the project officer for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for almost 4 years. “I rely on leadership and program management skills to improve health outcomes and fiscal stewardship at the State Level, and I utilize clinical skills for states to improve clinical quality management programs.”
  • Commander Michael Kluk, MA, CCC-SLP, is the only SLP at the National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He manages a portfolio of oncology research grants.
  • Commander Molly Rutledge, MS, MA, CCC-SLP, serves at the largest Indian Health Service hospital in the United States in urban Anchorage, Alaska. The Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) is a 173-bed hospital that offers comprehensive medical services, which include a full range of medical specialties and primary care services and labs. The hospital works in close partnership with rural health facilities statewide to support a broad range of health care and related services to Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

All officers are required to complete clinical hours, and all assignments encourage officers to develop leadership, policy, and other skills. There are many station opportunities within the USPHS, so Commander Kluk suggests, “Be flexible regarding where you work for your first assignment. Keep an open mind regarding agencies and duty station locations.” Want to learn more about officer assignments? Stop by the USPHS Booth #995 during the 2019 ASHA Convention in Orlando, Florida, November 21–23, 2019.

Eligibility and Application Process

Audiologists and SLPs interested in serving with the USPHS should plan for the process. Applicants must meet eligibility requirements before taking a preliminary screening examination and completing application materials. The process of becoming an officer may take up to 1 year. The application process is highly selective, and there is a 41% rejection rate for USPHS applicants.

When approaching the application process, Lieutenant Commander Chase recommends being patient. “Getting commissioned can be a long process. Continue to work towards gaining your work experience, and be ready when they call you. You will get a lot of information when you join, but you will have a support system no matter where you are in the world—nearly 200 other USPHS therapists.”

Why Serve in the USPHS

USPHS officers serve as clinical professionals, leaders, and policy advocates, and experience adventure while serving underserved and vulnerable populations, domestically and abroad. During her tenure, Chief Therapy Officer for USPHS Captain Mercedes Benitez-McCrary, DrHS, MA, CCC-SLP, MPHc, has enjoyed observing “[t]he absolute dedication of our officers and commitment to optimal patient care in clinical duties and policy development.”

Beyond clinical and leadership development, there are other considerable benefits to serving in the USPHS. According to Lieutenant Commander Chase, “I have enjoyed the benefits for my family and me. Health care coverage, bonuses, travel, presentations, meeting many other professionals, and the overall growth. I am finishing a certificate of global health at the end of the year from the Uniformed Services University at no cost to me.” Also, officers in the therapy category participate in a mentorship program. In this program, every therapist is assigned a mentor, and although they may not be stationed in the same location, a mentor can offer support and guidance on how to navigate your new role as an officer and therapist.

According to Commander Cala, the benefits to a career in USPHS are numerous. “Expect to grow in ways you could not imagine; expect to fall in love with your profession; expect to discover that you can impact in phenomenal ways the lives of your patients, the lives of their loved ones, and [the] life of the nation.”

Learn more about the USPHS Commissioned Corps, or check out the Leader Live blog post by Lieutenant Courtney Wood, MEd, CCC-SLP, "Have You Considered Service as an Audiologist or SLP in Uniform."