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Military service raises special health care needs for women

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Military health care providers picked up valuable information about treating a variety of health issues that impact military women during a symposium at the Eastern Area Health Education Center in Greenville on August 23, 2017.


Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, August 24, 2017

As more women join the military in ever-expanding roles, it’s important for health care providers to understand the different health needs and risks associated with their service, health care specialists told about 50 providers from eastern North Carolina on Wednesday.

Experts and researchers in women’s health from ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, the Greenville Veterans Administration Health Care Center, and Duke Area Health Education Center gathered in Greenville for a women’s military health symposium at the Eastern Area Health Education Center.

In addition to examining the physical aspects of military women’s health as well as their sexual and reproductive health, health professionals presented information about issues including depression, headaches and psychological and spiritual health challenges among the growing female active duty and veteran population.

“Our goal today was to raise awareness about the health issues that women military and veterans face that are different in some aspects from those of their male counterparts,” said Dr. Janice Busher, a private primary care physician chief of education at the Greenville VA clinic, which has a complete women’s health care clinic. 

“That means our priorities looking at their health care issues also have to be different. Seminars like today’s at AHEC improve our skills and we learn about women’s issues and priorities in order to provide the best possible physical and mental health care that we can.” 

Currently, women comprise about 15 percent of active U.S. armed forces and 16 percent of the officer corps. In 2016, there were more than 2 million female veterans across the nation from all branches of military service, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. North Carolina has the sicth-largest population of women veterans.

While the total number of veterans is expected to trend downward through 2040, the number of active female members is expected to grow during that time to about 18 percent, the data indicate.

Angela Lamson, an associate dean and professor of human development and family science at ECU, and Meghan Lacks, director of integrated care at Goshen Medical Center in New Bern presented approaches to the psychosocial and spiritual health of military women.

“The term, ‘medical’ is a lot of things,” Lamson told the health professionals in the room. “There was a time when psychosocial health wasn’t treated (in the military), but neither were women. We need to make sure we open up the possibilities along with their physical well being. One should not be more important than the other.”

A military setting can be a more difficult environment for women to reach out for health care, the marriage and family therapists and medical family therapists indicated. There still is generally a huge societal stigma for recognizing psychological and mental health needs, and the experiences that military personnel have are unique compared to everyone else, Lacks said.

“They are a protected group, and rightly so given their job,” Lacks said. “It’s also a population where the stigma of mental health can impact their job, whereas in the civilian population, you’re not going to get fired, get written up or face persecution if you go to a therapist. Your provider likely will not know about it. It's a component of research we have to think about.”

“We need to work to reduce health disparities for active duty and veteran women who are reaching out for mental and physical health care in healthcare settings, both on installations and in the community,” Lamson said.

The professional therapists highlighted the importance of providing an integrated care process that blends all aspects of care, rather than providing them separately. Such an integrated system can make the care process smoother, more comfortable and more effective for women, they said.

“If you are posted on a military installation and talking about depression or some post-trauma symptoms and your caregiver wants to refer you to the mental health department, it’s usually in a separate area and there is a lot more stigma associated with that,” Lacks said. “An integrated care model can feel more comfortable and get you to follow up on your mental health needs.”

“Researching military women’s health is a very complicated matter,” Lamson said. “It is a very protected population and there are a lot of appropriate protocols we have to go through.”

“There are a lot of barriers to (military women) having conversations about their sexual and reproductive health in an environment that’s already challenging,” Lacks said.

The therapist pointed out that women have been serving the military, actively or in other capacities, since the American Revolution.

“It is only recently that we’ve begun to accurately understand the meaning of their experiences,” she said. “Understanding the connection between all the aspects of their health is even newer.” 

To draw her understanding and approaches about psychosocial and spiritual care for women, Lacks said she pored over thousands of loosely related professional articles on associated topics before narrowing the subject down to issues focused on active duty women.

In the midst of helping military women deal with some serious and often deeply-rooted issues — including a 50-percent rate of reported sexual assault, according to one study presented at the symposium — there also is a very positive story to tell about military women, Lamson and Lacks stressed.

“There is a lot of negative publicity given to the gaps... but there is a lot of resilience in these patients — and the providers who serve them,” Lamson said.

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com and 329-9507.