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Female veterans report poorer health despite access to care

Women who have served in the military are a rapidly growing population. Now, a new study shows that female veterans consistently reported poorer health, even though they rated their access to health care better than civilian women rated theirs.

The researchers found (.pdf) that compared to civilian or active duty women, female veterans were more likely to smoke, be overweight or obese and depressed compared to other women. I was surprised to learn that no previous studies have directly compared the health of female veterans to that of the general population.

Conversely, according to the study, women currently serving in active duty have better access to health care and are less likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking or failing to exercise regularly.

The data came from the 2010 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, a telephone survey that included 274,399 civilians, 4221 veterans, 661 active duty and 995 National Guard or Reserves. The findings are supported by data from the national 1999 Large Health Survey of Veteran Enrollees, which showed that female veterans had lower scores in physical and mental health compared to data from the general population.

The study did not address why these health disparities exist. The study's lead author, Keren Lehavot, PhD, from the VA puget Sound Health Care System, offered a possible explanation in a Health Behavior News Service press release:

Lehavot said previous studies suggest that women veterans’ increased exposure to violence as well as inadequate social support might be associated with poorer health.

“We need additional research to determine if these, and other factors, help explain the differences we found,” she said.

Lehavot added that there have been changes in the Veterans Health Administration in recent years to reach out to women veterans and facilitate their access to care.

Previous studies have compared the health of women versus men in the military. In particular, women in the military have a higher prevalence (.pdf) of panic attacks, anxiety and depression compared with men. A possible reason is that 15.1 percent of women report   military-related sexual trauma, compared to just 0.7 percent of men.

Women veterans underuse VA healthcare compared to men. A 2010 review of female veteran's health showed that women rated their inpatient care at the VA lower than men did in measures such as courtesy and physical comfort. The review does back up Lehavot's observation that change is coming. More research regarding women in the veteran's health system was published between 2004 and 2008 than in the 25 years previous.

The review also revealed that most health research about female veterans has been observational - simply documenting trends rather than analyzing the reasons behind them. This gap in the scientific literature will only become more glaring: Women are one of the fastest growing groups of new users in the Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System.

Photo is U.S. Government Work

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