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VA increases research on women’s health issues

As more women veterans return home, the Department of Veterans Affairs has had to rethink and reshape its health care.

So says Kristin Mattocks, the associate chief of staff for research for VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System, and an assistant professor of quantitative health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

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The number of returning women veterans seeking care in the VA has doubled in the last decade from 159,000 in 2000 to almost 300,000 in 2009, according to a 2010 VA Sourcebook. Currently 20 percent of all new recruits nationally are women.

“We have to think about things like infertility and prenatal care, menstrual disorders, menopause even. This is something the VA hasn't done before,” Mattocks says.

Last month, the VA Central Western Massachusetts, VA Connecticut, and VA Boston Health Care Systems joined 34 other VA centers across the nation in the Women's Health Research Network, a collaboration of researchers and clinicians studying women’s health care issues.

“Some of the things we will be looking at include pregnancy, parenting, new data on infant care, exposure to trauma — both combat related and military sexual trauma — as well as distinct patterns of illness for women veterans versus their male counterparts,” says John Paradis, spokesman for the VA Central Western Massachusetts Health Care System.

In addition to funds from the National Institutes of Health, researchers have access to the money set aside each year by Congress for VA medical and prosthetic research. In 2011, that amounted $590 million. More and more of those research dollars will be dedicated to women's health concerns, Mattocks says.

Most of that research will explore health conditions among women veterans and the best way to optimize the care they receive in the VA. The beauty of any health research done by the VA, says Mattocks, is that “for veterans who come and use our services, we can look at them longitudinally, over 40 or 50 years. We can examine health conditions over very long period of time.”

The primary goal is to improve health care for women in the military, says Mattocks, “but our hope is that what we learn translates into better care for women everywhere.”

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