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December 3, 2013
By Gary Crump
Very few people who occupy space in the U.S. have escaped some type of effect from the 16-day partial government shutdown. In our little corner of life that orbits around pilot medical certification, the damage inflicted by the shutdown just added insult to injury at the end of a year that has seen some of the longest delays in medical certification process that we have seen in quite a while.
Understanding the bureaucratic process and “inside the beltway logic” can almost make one’s brain explode, but I am going to devote my next couple of columns to explaining some of the basics of the process of how the FAA does medical certification. We’ll focus not so much from the medicine side but from the “how they make the sausage” side, and then get into some specific events that have happened that resulted in consequences down the road.
Back when our own Dr. Silberman was running the Aerospace Medical Certification Division (AMCD) in Oklahoma City, he was in charge of developing a computer-based system for electronically processing and managing all airman medical records to replace the paper system that had been in place since the beginning of time. This was and is a multi-year project, and that is point No. 1. Government funding dictates the speed at which something gets done, and money has come in small increments for this project which is why it is still a work in progress after more than 10 years in development.
Point No. 2 is that the FAA relies on outside IT computer programming consultants, and in this case, some of the same programmers have been involved in this project since day one. Although there have been different business entities involved over the years, the same people have been rehired by each new company (most currently Northrup Grumman) and remained on site at AMCD to create the Medical Support System that is made up of a number of different complex components. For our discussion, though, the key pieces the Aerospace Medical Certification Subsystem (AMCS)—the AME’s interface with the medical application form (now called MedXPress) from the office to the FAA; the Document Imaging Workflow System, the internal component that electronically processes the medical application form sent over the Internet by the AME to the FAA; and the scanning and conversion to digital format of any hard copy medical records you or the AME sends to the FAA for review. That system then merges your medical records and the medical application into your unique airman medical file and assigns the file to the inbox of a legal instrument examiner (a “reviewer”), one of the specialized staff positions at the FAA that reviews all your medical information to determine that you are qualified for a medical certificate.
The final component is the MedXPress online medical application that we now complete before we see the aviation medical examiner. Once we complete the online application and submit it to the FAA, the application sits in the server at the FAA until we show up at the AME’s office with the confirmation number assigned to us when we submit the application. Once the AME retrieves that application, all the pieces begin to work together to complete the application process. Next, we will get into some of the events that have occurred in the last few years that have affected the processing of medical applications and certificate issuance.
Be on the lookout in the coming weeks for the continuation of this discussion in "Collateral Damage, Part 2."
Gary Crump, AOPA's director of medical certification, is a former operating room technician and emergency medical technician who has been assisting AOPA members for more than 25 years. He's also a medical expert for AOPA's Pilot Protection Services and has been flying since 1973.
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