Veterans are one of the most at-risk patient populations in the United States. From experiencing behavioral health conditions and trauma as a result of service, to living with socioeconomic barriers and significant healthcare inequalities, to lacking accessibility to care, Veterans have more challenges than simply returning home post-service.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated behavioral health challenges across all populations, with 80% of adults now reporting to be living with an anxiety disorder as a result. Within the Veteran community, the numbers are similarly striking. According to the National Veterans Foundation, 20% of Veterans who served in either Afghanistan or Iraq currently suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with almost 20% of this group having experienced some sort of traumatic brain injury while serving.
Despite these behavioral health and neurobiological obstacles, less than 50% of returning Veterans receive the treatments they need. Regardless of whether an individual is an active duty service member or a Veteran returned from service, Veterans face uphill battles when it comes to seeking behavioral health treatments.
Some of these hurdles include experiencing extremely long wait times to receive behavioral health care, fear of embarrassment and various stigmas, and overall lack of understanding around behavioral health conditions and available treatments. Moreover, many Veterans seeking behavioral health care face logistical problems, such as having to travel far distances to receive care, and not being able to afford costly treatments.
One of the most helpful steps to improving care for Veterans is ensuring equal access to care. The healthcare industry must work to address healthcare inequalities and employ an empathy-first approach that puts the Veteran patient at the center of their care.
Unfortunately, over time, significant barriers to accessing healthcare have arisen, particularly among communities of color, low-income, and at-risk populations, such as Veterans. These groups have often been excluded from discussions around healthcare and policy — including policies that directly impact them. For this reason, it’s common to find distrust of healthcare providers and practitioners among some groups, including Veterans, making the creation of strong, equitable health systems that harness collective and community-based experience that caters to the patient as an individual even more important.
A Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN) study demonstrated that the top five barriers to care for Veterans are concerns about what others think; physical, personal and financial obstacles; a lack of confidence in the Veteran healthcare system; challenges with navigating available benefits and healthcare services, and concerns regarding privacy, security, and abuse of services.
The study found that it’s essential for the healthcare industry to address the trauma that Veterans experience during service, and one of the top ways to do this is to lead treatment systems from an empathy-focused approach. It’s also important to acknowledge the cultural stigmas that Veterans often face when it comes to seeking behavioral health care. It is essential to provide Veteran-specific care and make strides toward creating a care system that meets the unique needs of this community.
Technology can be the bridge
Applying digital technologies in the right way can drive and scale an empathy- and patient-first approach to care. It allows providers, for instance, to build out a 360-degree profile of each individual patient that will help them understand their unique needs. Modernized technologies can help track pain levels, prescriptions, encourage accountability, and even help with painstakingly long processes like scheduling appointments with practitioners.
The data collected can help establish an understanding of whether they have any social determinants of health (SDOH) barriers, their ability to travel, socioeconomic factors that may impact a patient’s ability to access care, and whether the patient is at a higher risk than others. This will make the entire healthcare experience feel far more personalized and catered to each individual, while removing barriers to care. When coupled with care management services, the use of digital technologies can lead to just in time care.
In a real-life case study, clinicians working with Veterans found that resources on suicide prevention were not easily available, even within a healthcare setting. Among the steps taken to address the issue, providers were able to prominently display suicide prevention information and a crisis hotline number on the in-room interactive patient engagement screens, providing a constant reminder that help was just a click away.
The results from this simple change were stark. From only seven inpatient Veterans accessing suicide prevention information before the change, the number jumped to an average of about 88 patients accessing the information per month after. A simple fix is sometimes all it takes to provide our Veterans with a private and non-judgmental place to access potentially life-saving tools at a time where they might need it most.
Being able to understand and anticipate Veterans’ needs will help healthcare providers and society-at-large help our Veterans access the care, tools, and technology they need more quickly and effectively.