June 27, 2012 - Few people understand VA's longstanding commitment to improving women's health more than a group of VA doctors that presented their work at a Women Veterans’ Research Roundtable on June 22. Hosted by the VA Under Secretary of Health, Dr. Robert Petzel, the Roundtable focused on research and how that research interacts with clinical care.
"Women are now the fastest growing group within the Veteran population," said Dr. Petzel , "more than doubling since 2000, from less than 160,000 to more than 337,000 today and accounting for six percent of all VA health care users."
Dr. Elizabeth Yano from the VA in Los Angeles, winner of the 2012 VA Under Secretary’s Award in Health Services Research, opened the Roundtable with news about the Women’s Health Research Network (WHRN), a new initiative designed to overcome the hurdle that there are just too few women Veterans at any one VA facility to address many important women’s health research questions. Dr. Yano and VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s (VAPAHCS) Dr. Susan Frayne co-led the WHRN.
A good example of the importance of WHRN is heart disease -- the leading cause of death of American women. “Although there could be enough male Veterans suffering from heart disease in a large VA for a study, there simply would not be enough women at one VA,” said Dr. Frayne. “The solution is banding together across VAs. Now we can.”
The WHRN started with four inaugural sites: Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Durham, and Iowa City. Due to an outpouring of enthusiasm from VAs across the country, in just 18 months it expanded from four to 37 VAs. The network now represents a pool of over 100,000 women Veterans who use VA health care - one in every three VA women patients is part of this network.
Dr. Samina Iqbal, VAPAHCS Medical Director of Women Veterans’ Health Program, shared the clinical perspective and the importance of research-clinician collaboration within the WHRN. “Research is helping us improve the quality of health care delivered to women Veterans every day,” said Dr. Iqbal.
In the WHRN, women's health researchers and clinicians meet regularly to share information and ideas. By sharing issues that emerge at the bedside, the clinicians are able to guide research. Researchers share studies still in the planning phase with the clinicians for feedback. New findings, hot of the press, improve and refine clinical programs.
“In short," said Dr. Iqbal, “We study what we do and we do what we study."
Dr. Rachel Kimerling, whose research on military sexual trauma is world-renowned, spoke about her newest study with the WHRN: Patient Priorities for Gender-Specific Care, among the first to be launched under the WHRN.
“We are developing methods to assess the types of mental health services that are most important to women in our system,” said Dr. Kimerling. “We ask about services ranging from help with their mood, or PTSD, to issues such as parenting, caregiving, or relationships. We also are focusing on how women would like to receive these services.”
VA asks women Veterans to rate the importance of female providers or settings, including telemedicine, to get gender-specific care in areas where there are fewer women Veterans. “The enthusiastic response we are seeing in the clinics suggests that we are on the right track,” she said.
Based on this work, the network helped Dr. Kimerling launch the first national survey of Women Veterans Mental Health Needs: The WOMAN Survey, or Women’s Overall Mental Health Assessment of Needs. Researchers are now in the process of calling women Veterans across the country to determine priorities for women’s mental health services and to find out if VA services meet women’s gender-specific needs and values.
“The great news is that we are starting to see researchers lining up to express interest in using the Network,” said Dr. Frayne. “Now that VA has laid the foundation for a new era in women’s health research, our next challenge will be to build on the energy and enthusiasm of the researchers, clinicians and women Veterans who are part of this Network to promote research that improves the quality of care for all women Veterans.”