August 1, 2023

Panel Discusses How Institutions are Supporting Women Service Members and Women Veterans Through Research

By Ruby Baxley, SWHR Communications and Policy Intern; Lindsey Horan, Chief Advocacy Officer

The number of women who are currently serving and who have served in the United States military services have steadily increased over time. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), more than 2 million women veterans live in the United States today and represent the fastest growing group in the veteran population, and according to the Department of Defense, in 2021 women made up 17.3% of the active-duty force and 21.4% of the National Guard and reserves. Ensuring that these populations receive the health care that they need both during their service and after they are discharged is a national imperative.

During the Society for Women’s Health Research’s (SWHR) June 2023 Policy Advisory Council meeting, SWHR hosted a group of panelists to discuss the research and innovation that is currently taking place to support women service members and women veterans:

Through their presentations, each speaker made clear that the unique challenges and specific concerns of women require dedicated research and focus.

Dr. Stahl previously served as a Medical Service Corps officer in the U.S. Army. In her various roles, she saw firsthand the challenges that women service members can face in the line of duty. Challenges she identified include prevalent urinary tract infections (UTIs), menstrual cycle issues, access to birth control, challenges finding private space for breast feeding, and—from an operational perspective—the musculoskeletal impact of wearing protective gear due to the weight of combat equipment. Each of these issues can have tremendous bearing on women, which, as Dr. Stahl noted, can have a ripple effect:

“Women’s health related challenges don’t just impact women; they can impact the readiness and effectiveness of the entire military unit.”

Now, Dr. Stahl continues her work with HJF, a nonprofit organization created for the purpose of supporting the Uniformed Services University (USU) with a mission to advance military medicine. The women’s health research supported by HJF and carried out by USU includes research on contraceptive use in bone health risk factors, gynecological cancer research, and investigations into osteoporosis and fractures in women.

The VA Office of Research and Development (ORD) works to improve veterans’ health and well-being through health care discovery and innovation. According to Dr. Borsky, research on women veterans is a priority of the VA. This includes both understanding the health and health care needs of women veterans and translating understanding into new research to improve care.

There are approximately 9 million veterans receiving care from VA Hospitals, and 22% of those individuals are women. While there is equalization of hardships and risks for men and women veterans, women veterans tend to experience greater mental health burdens and higher rates of sexual violence and harassment. As the segment of women VA users grows, Dr. Borsky shared, the VA has been adapting to better meet women’s needs. Its efforts have included training VA providers on common women’s health conditions, recognizing women’s roles in the military, and changing VA facilities to better meet the needs and design for women’s health care services.

The VA has also increased its research efforts in women’s health, focusing on the evidence base to inform policy and practice. Key among its efforts right now is updating the ORD-wide women’s health research agenda to see what research the VA has funded, what specific health and health care needs for women veterans exist, where there are gaps, and what the strategic priorities are for moving forward to ensure that the needs of women veterans are met.

Dr. Borsky also noted that the women veterans’ health services research portfolio has grown in terms of size and diversity in recent years. Current research of the ORD includes projects predicting the breast cancer risk for women veterans, understanding and targeting stress reactivity in women veterans with alcohol misuse, and addressing intimate partner violence among women veterans.

The Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) within the Department of Defense has a mission to responsibly manage collaborative research that discovers, develops, and delivers health care solutions for service members, their families, veterans, and the American public. Of note, Dr. Vaday shared that CDMRP funds high-impact innovative research and collaborates with other federal research agencies to ensure that its research complements, and does not duplicate, research being conducted through other federal research agencies.

In fiscal year 2023, CDMRP had 35 programs, which received a total $1.5 billion. Within CDMRP’s programs, there are topics and research programs specifically focused on women’s health-relevant subjects, such as ovarian cancer. There are also several programs, ranging from breast cancer to lupus to Alzheimer’s disease, in areas that disparately affect women.

The USU is the nation’s federal health professions academy. Within USU, there is a Military Women’s Health Research Program that funds intramural research with the goals of identifying priorities and knowledge gaps and conducting research to influence policy and improve health care outcomes of active-duty service women and women veterans through international and interdisciplinary collaborations.

Dr. Hamlin provided an overview of USU’s current research grants, which include:

USU’s latest round of grantees are focused on two priority areas: musculoskeletal injuries and evaluation of the implementation of walk-in contraceptive clinics that are now mandated by every military hospital. Research will focus on whether these clinics have improved contraceptive intake among active-duty service women and the impact of these clinics on force readiness.

For more information on the innovative research programs from our June Policy Advisory Council meeting please visit: