Studies on Female Vets Influence VA Health Care

The large number of women serving in the military and in combat zones for extended periods is producing reams of data that will shape health care and programs for female service members and veterans for years to come, analysts say.

With nearly 214,000 women on active duty and roughly 240,000 women having deployed to operational theaters since 2001, researchers are poring over information and interviewing female veterans to study a host of issues.

More studies have been produced on women in the military in the past six years than were issued in the previous 25, said Dr. Bevanne Bean-Mayberry, a clinician for the Veterans Affairs Center for the Study of Healthcare Provider Behavior.

Researchers are examining topics ranging from the causes of homelessness for female vets, post-deployment health and treatment, traumatic brain injury in women, and female veterans’ impressions of medical care received at VA health facilities.

“Women are the fastest growing group of veterans in the VA health system. VA has to address women’s health concerns,” said Susan Wood, director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at George Washington University.

A special edition of the journal Women’s Health Issues published by the Jacobs Institute in July contains 18 articles related to female veterans’ health studies, focusing on the changing demographics and demands placed on VA health care as a result of the surge of female veterans entering the system.

VA provided funding to make this issue of the subscription-only journal available to the public. It is online at www.whijournal.com/supplements.

VA is likely to be pleased by some of the researchers’ findings. For example, in one study, female veterans reported being highly satisfied with their medical treatment if they are seen at a VA facility containing a primary care clinic tailored to women. In 2008, VA began an initiative to ensure that female patients have access to a primary care provider who treats illness, provides gender-specific health care and mental health services.

Researchers also found that female veterans who experienced sexual trauma on active duty reported very good or excellent satisfaction with their health care at VA facilities. According to researchers, patients in the general population who are victims of sexual assault or abuse tend to look less favorably on the general medical care they receive.

But the female veterans in that study also said VA needed to improve communications between multiple doctors and health care providers — and between doctors and the patients themselves.

“Opportunities exist to educate providers on the special coordination needs of female veterans with histories of military sexual trauma,” wrote Rachel Kimerling, a clinical psychologist with the National Center for PTSD at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Other findings published in the journal supplement include:

Post-traumatic stress disorder is the most common psychiatric condition diagnosed for those with traumatic brain injury for both genders, although women are less likely to receive a PTSD diagnosis than men.

Women with TBI also are twice as likely than men to receive a depression diagnosis and report more severe neurobehavioral symptoms related to their TBI than men — sensory problems, mood swings, memory processing and problem solving.

More female vets smoke (29 percent) than male veterans (23 percent).