June 20, 2019

How To Improve Healthcare for Women Vets? First, You Have to Ask

Women VA staff with posters about why they love their work. One says I'm a veteran helping other veterans.Most female veterans don’t get their health care at the VA. As many as 72%, in fact. Among the many reasons: the VA does not have all the services for women; it doesn’t treat their whole family; it can be uncomfortable to get care in a male-dominated environment; they are tired of VA staff assuming they’re a spouse rather than a service member; it isn’t always conveniently located. The list goes on.

But as the VA’s own data shows, female veterans are more likely to experience military sexual trauma, domestic violence, wage disparity or discrimination, PTSD, substance use disorders, and homelessness than their male counterparts. So having care that is informed by their military status can be crucial.

What can health care systems do to better serve women vets? They can start by identifying them.

“Asking the question ‘Have you served in the military?’ can open a lot of doors to better treatment and connection to resources and support,” says Kawryne Holmes, assistant director at Smart Policy Works, who is also an active service member.

Currently, few health care providers are asking that question. A survey of providers published in the Journal of Family Medicine, found that 56% “never or rarely” ask their patients about military service; only 19% of respondents said they often or always ask.

One of the nation’s largest networks of federally qualified health centers, Access Community Health Network recently partnered with Smart Policy Works to make the care they provide women patients more veteran-friendly and veteran-appropriate.

Through implementation of a new provider training program to improve cultural competency and development of a targeted marketing and education campaign, ACCESS’ health centers are now more veteran-friendly and aware of the specific needs of our veterans. Patients are now directly asked about their military service history – rather than veteran status, which has many different definitions to former military service members.

Combined with ACCESS’ additional comprehensive screening protocols, these efforts are specifically aimed at helping female veterans achieve wellness goals and better connect to local resources. Leveraging their electronic health record technology, ACCESS has embedded prompts to screen patients at every visit and that data lives within that patient’s medical record so that ACCESS’ care team can readily respond to the unique needs of veteran patients.

“After collaborating with Smart Policy Works and clearly seeing the large unmet needs of veterans that live right in the communities we proudly serve, we were excited to embed this simple additional screening to better link our veteran patients with the care and support services they need and deserve,” said ACCESS Chief Executive Officer Donna Thompson.

How can we make these kinds of changes routine at all health care providers? As it happens, there is action on that front too. Smart Policy Works brought together a group of key stakeholders who are united in their belief that it’s time to provide better care to female veterans.

Calling themselves the Women Veterans Roundtable, the group includes community health providers and representatives from the VA, local philanthropy, veteran-serving organizations, and veterans themselves. The need to identify service members in health care was the first of their top three recommendations, and at the end of February, this group saw a resolution adopted by the Illinois State Senate, encouraging all providers to ask this question.

These are timely developments. With the passage of the VA Mission Act last year, more veterans will be eligible for care in the community than ever before. The VA is now required to provide access to community care if the VA does not offer the care or services the veteran requires and to enter into contracts with private networks to ensure veterans get this care when warranted. This is a bright opportunity to get women service members on the radar of health care providers. We want to seize the chance to make sure that those who serve get the care they need.


Designated as a Level 3 patient-centered medical home by the National Committee for Quality Assurance, ACCESS offers patient-centered, preventive, and primary care services to more than 175,000 patients a year. It is one of the largest networks of community health centers in the nation, with 35 Joint Commission-accredited community health centers in Chicago and surrounding suburbs.

(Photos courtesy of the Veterans Health Administration)

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