October 9, 2018

Veterans Health Administration: Making Changes to Better Serve Women

Women are the fastest-growing segment within the U.S. veteran population and account for nearly 10 percent of the people served by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA).

To meet the unique needs of female veterans, the VHA is implementing creative models to change the current system, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the agency’s Deputy Under Secretary for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks, explained during an SWHR Policy Advisory Council meeting last month.

The VHA has many efforts in place to support female veterans. The agency’s Collaborative Research to Enhance and Advance Transformation and Excellence (CREATE) initiative includes five research projects examining “the essential factors that facilitate (or slow) the pace, effectiveness and outcomes of delivery of comprehensive care for women veterans.” The Initiative aims to assess barriers to quality care and evaluate the effectiveness of innovative care models for female veterans.

Clancy also cited the agency’s Enhancing Mental and Physical Health of Women through Engagement and Retention (EMPOWER) initiative, which is designed to improve female veteran engagement and retention in evidence-based care for three high-priority areas: diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental health.

In addition, with a research budget of nearly $800 million a year, the agency is seeking to increase the number of female veterans enrolling in its studies, Clancy said. She added that this requires greater focus on eliminating barriers to women’s participation in research, such as by accommodating for work, child care, and elder care responsibilities.  As a result, the agency has funded the Women’s Health Research Network (WHRN), which provides support to VA researchers to make it easier to include women in their research or focus on women’s health topics.

“Our ultimate goal is to make it the norm or default that when we’re designing studies we not only have at least representative numbers of women enrolled but that they are very engaged in designing the studies and helping us focus on the right priorities and dissemination of results,” Clancy said.

For example, researchers are teaming up with female veterans to enhance the design of prosthetics for women, she said. This collaboration has spurred work on addressing how the fit of a prosthesis may change if a woman gets pregnant and developing prostheses with movable ankle joints to give female amputees the option of wearing different shoe types.

Clancy also noted that the agency is working to rectify the slight underrepresentation of women in its Million Veteran Program, which aims to build one of the world’s largest medical databases by collecting blood samples and health information from 1 million veteran volunteers.

“Our No. 1 job is making sure veterans get great care, whether that’s in our system or the care we buy from partners in the community,” Clancy said. She concluded that a lot of very exciting work is ongoing and that the agency will amplify these efforts to better serve veterans.