The military community is close to my heart as an advanced nurse practitioner and also as a military spouse.
It’s a community that often goes unnoticed, but it’s estimated that there are around 2 million veterans living in the UK and, with around 5.4 million adult spouses, partners, widowers and dependent children, that’s a significant number of the population.
Approximately 18,000 military personnel re-enter civilian life each year, including approximately 2,000 who leave the service for medical reasons. This is a huge lifestyle change and as healthcare professionals we have a duty to access the tools and training that are freely available to ensure that we can provide this group with the support which he needs.
“Often, the health care needs of veterans can be very different from those of the general population”
So how is this community different from the general population, and why should we treat it differently? The Armed Forces Covenant does not stipulate that veterans should be treated differently, but that they should not suffer any disadvantage, which can happen for several reasons.
Often the health care needs of veterans can be very different from those of the general population. This may be related to the intense physical demands of the military, lifestyle factors (such as physical and psychological trauma), and exposure to harmful/toxic substances.
Some sources also suggest that 52% of veterans suffer from a long-term illness or disability, compared to 36% of the general population. The military lifestyle typically requires frequent travel and disconnection from regular contact with health services. Families can lose their places on NHS waiting lists due to frequent moves. There is also the major problem of stigma, which can prevent many former combatants from accessing health services.
Unfortunately, this is compounded by a lack of understanding of the armed forces culture among civilian healthcare personnel, which puts them at a further disadvantage.
Often the gateway to the NHS, GP surgeries can play a vital role in solving this problem, supporting veterans and their families. Military veterans have a higher prevalence of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and alcohol abuse than the general population, and these rates are higher for those with experience of fight.
There is also evidence that PTSD has underlying biological and neurological effects that produce biological markers consistent with a wide range of inflammatory disorders, including cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases. This means that veterans with these conditions are very likely to present to doctors’ offices, but do not always identify as veterans, thereby denying themselves access to specialist services.
“As nurses, we can champion best practice for our armed forces community”
This is where we can step in to help you. RCGP’s Veteran-Friendly Accreditation Program gives GPs the training, information and resources to identify and support their veteran patients. It starts with simply asking, “Have you ever served?”
By joining the RCGP’s veteran-friendly accreditation scheme and appointing a clinical lead for veteran healthcare, GP practices can support the commitments of the Armed Forces Covenant and the NHS Constitution.
As nurses, we can champion best practices for our armed forces community by taking on these rewarding clinical roles. It is simply a matter of keeping abreast of the latest training provided online by email by the RCGP as part of the free program. Veterans should also be available to advise colleagues and support veterans directly when needed.
To date, the program is proving extremely valuable, with an evaluation study by the University of Chester revealing that 99% of respondents from accredited practices would recommend the practice, and 84% reported a better understanding of veterans’ needs. .
With a friendly face and a listening ear, nurses can play a vital role in helping to first identify our veterans and then support them.
Please check if your surgery is accredited and consider volunteering to be a clinical lead for veterans. You might be the knight in shining armor in your local armed forces community.
To learn more about the RCGP Veteran Accreditation Program, click here.
Jordana Wright is an Advanced Nurse Practitioner at Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust