To address what it calls an “urgent need” for better health care for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, a foundation has awarded grants to four Connecticut nursing schools for scholarships designed to improve the care.
The University of Connecticut and Fairfield, Quinnipiac, and Yale Universities are among 57 schools in the country given grants by the Jonas Center for Nursing and Veterans Healthcare. Scholarships will be provided to doctoral nursing students who will study and research deployed veterans’ health problems. The goal is that after the students graduate, they will treat veterans and their families, and also teach nursing students in academic and clinical settings about veterans’ health issues.
Darlene Curley, executive director of the Jonas Center, noted that many returning veterans are dealing with amputations, head injuries, PTSD, and brain injuries, which don’t have “short term cures. These are lifelong injuries and nurses are going to be caring for them throughout their lifetimes. So, it’s really new kinds of care.”
“The number of veterans returning with physical and mental injuries is much higher than the VA or anyone expected,” she said. Since the New York City-based Jonas Center’s work focuses on nursing, “we wanted to find a way nursing could improve the health care of our veterans.”
UConn, Fairfield and Quinnipiac each received grants to award one $10,000 health care scholarship over a two-year period starting next fall, while Yale was funded for two scholarships. There will be 115 scholarship recipients in the country who are working toward either nursing PhDs or Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees. Each of the students, not yet selected, will be required to do research in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). They will also attend a conference on nursing leadership paid for by their universities.
Jean Lange, dean of Quinnipiac’s School of Nursing, said since most veterans get their medical care outside of the VA, all medical providers need to be educated about veterans’ medical needs to avoid misdiagnoses and problems being overlooked, and to insure that appropriate referrals are made. There are issues “that are unique to them,” she said of veterans.
Lynn Babington, dean of the Fairfield University School of Nursing, agreed that education geared to understanding veterans’ experiences is essential to treating those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They have major health implications. Even if they are not physically injured, the psychological issues related to these wars are more significant than any other war,” she said. “As a nursing profession, we have an obligation to care for our patients in the best way possible,” she said. “It’s important to understand the challenges of veterans and their families and help them meet those challenges.
Curley, of the Jonas Center, said statistics convinced the foundation’s directors to help veterans. “One out of every five veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has some sort of mental health diagnosis whether it’s PTSD, or traumatic brain injury, or depression. And, 320,000 returning veterans have multiple injuries,” she said.
The center’s website cites “an alarming increase in suicide risk among veterans” and points out that almost 90 percent of troops are attacked or ambushed in combat, while 65 percent witness death or serious injury of their comrades.
“Currently, our health care workforce is not adequately prepared to help veterans adapt to their reintegration and the unique challenges they face, both physically and emotionally,” it states.
Nationally, nursing schools are participating in an effort to convince medical providers to ask every patient if he or she is a veteran, said Lange of Quinnipiac. If the answer is yes, “there are certain things they may be at greater risk for,” she said.
Curley said there is also a national movement as part of the White House’s Joining Forces initiative to promote establishment of veterans’ health care curricula in nursing schools that don’t already have them. She said teaching is essential to improving veterans’ health care, noting that a nursing school faculty member has the potential of teaching 200 students a year. They become nurses who each eventually give care to 17,000 patients in their careers.
The Jonas Center funded a pilot program on veterans’ health care in 2011 with five nursing students at the University of San Diego. It officially started its program with two-year grants in 2012 with 54 students. More than doubling participation with this year’s grants, “we’re really trying to increase the numbers across the whole country because the need is there,” Curley said.
Retired Brigadier General William Bester, a former chief nurse of the U.S. Army, is overseeing the veterans health care program for the Jonas Center.