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VA looks for ways to better serve female veterans

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The women’s clinic at Augusta’s Char­lie Norwood VA Medical Center is outgrowing its space three years after opening.

Navy veteran Nicole Cain, right, sits with Dr. Jennifer Ward after a appointment at the Women's VA Clinic in downtown Augusta. There has been a recent rise in enrollment in the clinic.   EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
EMILY ROSE BENNETT/STAFF
Navy veteran Nicole Cain, right, sits with Dr. Jennifer Ward after a appointment at the Women's VA Clinic in downtown Augusta. There has been a recent rise in enrollment in the clinic.

Clinic officials say it’s a sign more female veterans know specialized help is available.

It’s also representative of the growing number of female veterans, who currently make up about 15 percent of the national veteran population. The latest numbers from the VA show that while the number of male veterans is expected to decrease by 2020, female veterans will increase from 1.8 million in 2011 to 2 million, according to the draft of the VA’s female veterans strategic plan released May 15.

Right now, about 2,700 women receive health care through the Augusta-based district, including community clinics in Aiken and Athens. That’s a 15 percent increase over the past three years, and it’s expected to rise.

“This trend has not peaked,” said Paula Martin, the director of women’s programs at the clinic. “We are only beginning to see the influence the growing female veteran population will have on the services provided at the VA Medical Centers across the nation.”

Nicole Cain of Hephzibah, a Navy veteran who received services at the downtown hospital before the clinic opened, said it was awkward sitting for long periods of time with older male veterans, and her gender-
specific needs were often distributed among multiple doctors before the clinic opened.

Since the clinic opened, she’s had shorter wait times and a doctor who knows her complete medical history. For instance, when she became pregnant, her doctor tailored her care because she knew Cain’s was a high-risk pregnancy.

“I feel much more comfortable asking questions,” Cain said.

The clinic opened in 2009 with special features for female veterans. The exam tables are low to the ground, padded and heated. Feedback from patients has led to other changes, such as turning exam tables away from doors to avoid embarrassing interruptions and a chaperone during physical exams.

Women can receive treatment for a variety of ailments at the clinic, from the joint and back pain caused by heavy battle gear to breast and cervical cancer screenings. Studies from the VA show 31 percent of female veterans have both medical and mental health conditions, compared with 24 percent of male veterans. That’s why a dedicated social worker is available to help women with issues such as military sexual trauma.

But there are limitations. Some of the obstetrics and gynecology services are provided by the Dwight D. Eisen­hower Army Medical Cen­ter at Fort Gordon through a sharing agreement with the VA.

Martin expects the increased demand and anticipates improved on-site services in the next three years.

“It’s often hard for these ladies to come forward, but they are taking advantage of what we offer,” Martin said.


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