VA, Defense Department Work to Meet Women's Medical Needs

VA recently launched a four-year study of female Vietnam veterans' mental and physical health. Meanwhile, the military provides gynecologists at all its hospitals. by Kelly Von Lunen.

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Publication: VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars Magazine
Author: Von Lunen, Kelly
Date published: March 1, 2010
Language: English
PMID: 23513
ISSN: 01618598
Journal code: GVFW

Women veterans have been popularly labeled as "one of the fastest growing segments of the veteran population." But what does this really mean for the future?

VA estimates that there are approximately 1.8 million women among the nation's 23 million living veterans - that's 7.8% of the total. Nearly 5.5% of the vets who use VA health care are women. VA anticipates that by 2020, 10.5% of veterans and 9.5% of VA patients will be female.

The Defense Department and VA clearly recognize the differences in health care female service members and veterans require. VFW resolutions have long supported this focus on specific services for women vets, too.

VA Studies Female Vietnam Vets

In November 2009, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a comprehensive VA study of female Vietnam-era vets. The study is designed to explore the longterm effects of women's military service on their mental and physical health.

"One of my top priorities is to meet the needs of women veterans," Shinseki said. "VA realizes that women veterans require specialized programs, and this study will help VA provide high-quality care for women veterans of the Vietnam era."

The study, which began in November and will last more than four years, includes contacting approximately 10,000 women via mailed surveys and telephone interviews, as well as reviewing medical records.

An estimated 250,000 female veterans served in the military during the Vietnam War, of which 7,484 (6,250 were nurses), or 3%, actually served in the war zone.

As female Vietnam era-vets approach their mid-60s, VA looks to understand the impact of wartime deployment on their physical and mental health nearly 40 years later. The study will assess the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other ailments, as well as explore the relationship between PTSD and various conditions.

Women Vietnam-era veterans who may have had direct exposure to traumatic events will be studied. So for the first time, those stationed at facilities in Vietnam will be included.

This study is regarded as the most comprehensive examination of women Vietnam-era vets to date. Managed by VA's Cooperative Studies Program, it is projected to cost $5.6 million.

Other VA initiatives for female veterans in recent years include:

* Implementing comprehensive primary care throughout the nation.

* Staffing every VA medical center with a women veterans program manager.

* Supporting a multifaceted research program on women's health.

* Improving communication and outreach to women veterans.

* Establishing the Center for Women Veterans and the Women Veterans Health Strategic Healthcare Group.

Military Meeting Women's Needs?

Col. Kathy Harrington, deputy chief of the Clinical Services Division for the Army Medical Command, says the military's current health system already meets the needs of both male and female service members.

"Women have been in theater now for years," Harrington said, "and it's the military health system's mission to address the needs of any soldier, be that soldier at home or deployed, male or female."

An obstetrician/gynecologist (OB/ GYN) is available at every U.S. combat support hospital (CSH) around the world. Women seeking care first visit their primary care physicians. Then any unresolved issues are referred to the OB/GYN at the closest CSH.

Like other medications, female service members are encouraged to take contraceptives with them when they deploy. Those who become pregnant in a war zone are immediately redeployed to the U.S.

Female service members who detect a breast lump while deployed initially report it to their primary care provider. If that initial physician believes it necessary, the service member is referred to a surgeon at the closest CSH. If surgery is required, it is performed at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

While there are not separate health care facilities for men and women in theater, Harrington said this is no different than health care at home.

"All deployed soldiers are given the maximum amount of privacy possible," Harrington said. "It's very similar to what would be given here in the states - all soldiers are treated equally."

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