UArizona Nursing Alumnus Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Oblea, Aims to Make Masks More Comfortable for HealthCare Workers

June 21, 2021

Since completing his PhD at the University of Arizona College of Nursing in 2014, Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Oblea, PhD, RN has distinguished himself as one of the military’s star nurse scientists. Frequently on the move in pursuit of new knowledge and experience, his duties have taken him to locales as diverse as, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany; and Womack Army Medical Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In October, 2020, he was promoted to the position as Chief, Center for Nursing Science and Clinical Inquiry, Tripler Army Medical Center, Honolulu, Hawaii.

An active duty military officer for nearly 18 years, Dr. Oblea was deployed to Iraq twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, as an ICU Nurse and as a Brigade Nurse. His research has focused on the effects of short-term separation on the behavioral health of military wives and a groundbreaking investigation into the experiences and challenges impacting the health and readiness of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) military service members. Currently, Dr. Oblea is embarking on a new study, under review by the Military Institutional Review Board – funded by a $158,000 grant from the TriService Nursing Research Program (TSNRP) – to study N95-respirators.

“The process of earning a PhD is all about learning how to become a scientist, but the University of Arizona offers elective courses that prepare doctoral students for a career in leadership and management,” ~ Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Oblea, PhD, RN

His interest in the project dates to his time at Fort Bragg, when an officer in charge of a deployed unit told him that military nurses were experiencing facial skin breakdown caused by the constant mask requirements. “As a nurse scientist, I was intrigued,” he said. Looking for evidence or gaps in knowledge, he reviewed the literature for possible treatments and clinical practice guidelines to prevent skin breakdown related to wearing N95 respirators. “To my surprise, very few research articles have been published on this topic,” he said. “Epidemiological studies have revealed that healthcare workers who wear N95 masks suffer from acne, facial dermatitis, and pigmentation of the nasal bridge, cheeks, and chin. I decided to write a research grant for possible funding.”

The study – which is scheduled to last until February, 2022 – will employ a non-blinded, randomized, three-period crossover design with two active treatments (faceplate and cream) and a control group. Each study participant will serve as their own control for comparison with the received interventions, eliminating the influence of selection bias. Participants will use the hydrocolloid skin protectant under their N95 masks, a dimethicone cream application, or no hydrocolloid barrier based on the randomization.

Lieutenant Colonel Pedro Oblea, PhD, RN

“I expect the hydrocolloid skin protectant, which is strong yet thin enough to allow a good seal when donning a N95 respirator, will reduce skin breakdown in the facial area and improve PPE protocol adherence,” Dr. Oblea said, noting that it is still too early to do more than speculate about possible results. 

In his new position as Chief, Center for Nursing Science and Clinical Inquiry at Tripler Army Medical Center, Dr. Oblea has a host of important responsibilities.  The Center has one of the largest military hospitals in the Pacific and falls within Regional Health Command – Pacific, which oversees medical, dental, and public health facilities on the West Coast of the United States as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea. Its operational space spans 36 countries and encompasses more than 4,500 miles across five time zones. Dr. Oblea’s primary responsibility is to provide oversight and facilitation for nursing research and evidence-based practice projects. “I supervise a staff of nurse scientists, doctorally prepared clinical nurse specialists, and research coordinators,” he said, adding that he oversees and engages in research and evidence-based practice execution, mentorship, and education. “I also provide consultations and decision support. Ultimately, I encourage and establish collaborations with military and civilian university students and staff while also participating in organizational development initiatives.”

Dr. Oblea cites the mentorship and guidance he received as a PhD student at UArizona Nursing as providing inspiration for his leadership role. “I still ask my faculty advisor and dissertation chair, Dr. Terry A. Badger, for advice when I need to make decisions and fine-tune research questions,” he said. “The process of earning a PhD is all about learning how to become a scientist, but the University of Arizona offers elective courses that prepare doctoral students for a career in leadership and management.”

Dr. Oblea’s magnanimous view of his responsibilities are inspiring and embody the qualities that distinguish so many of our Wildcat Nurses. “When I was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, my focus changed from ‘self-serving’ to ‘service to others,’ meaning that I no longer put my own career first, but instead focused on how to help others achieve their goals, accomplish their mission, and perform better in their jobs,” he said. “I believe that, when my soldiers excel in their jobs and succeed in their missions, it will reflect my leadership and management style in the long run.”