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Addressing the health care needs of veterans

As a nurse, you have likely cared for a wide variety of people with varying health conditions and problems. However, as you well know, some patients bring unique challenges. Veterans can be one of these categories.  When men and women serve in the military, they often return with additional health challenges, some of which nurses may not be accustomed to addressing in the average patient.

Though sometimes challenging, working with former members of the armed forces can be incredibly rewarding. Whether you are employed specifically at a VA Hospital, are in a general health care organization or are just finishing your Master of Science in Nursing degree and figuring out what to do next, any nurse can benefit from an increased knowledge of the health care needs of veterans.

Addressing the unique challenges of veterans

As a nurse, you can play a valuable role in caring for the nation’s veterans. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which happens to be the largest employers of nurses in the country, VA nurse have been playing an important part in the organization’s health care efforts. The VA reported that these professionals set clinical standards for excellence in caring for veterans, and that the former service men and women and their families rely heavily on the nurses’ compassion in their every day care. But many veterans also seek care outside of the VA network, which means that nurses at other hospitals and health care organizations also can contribute to the care of these patients.


According to a 2013 report published in the American Journal of Nursing, a few of the unique health care challenges faced by veterans include:

  • Chronic pain.
  • Traumatic brain injuries.
  • Substance abuse disorders.
  • Hazardous exposures.

However, physical challenges are not the only health concern that is common in former members of the military. Many veterans also struggle with invisible illnesses such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or depression that may be less apparent. Others may be suicidal or homeless. While many of these conditions will need to be treated by a mental health professional, nurses who work closely with these patients may be the first to identify the warning signs and encourage the veteran to seek help.

Many health care organizations are also looking to nurses to play a more active role in the treatment of veterans. According to the Washington Post, in May the VA published a proposal that would give registered nurses unprecedented authority in caring for the nation’s veterans. In response to the growing demand for VA services, the organization wants to broaden the responsibilities of nurses with advanced training to include tasks such as prescribing medication, manage chronic diseases and ordering diagnostic tests. Nurse with an MSN could be well-placed to receive increased responsibility. The plan has received mixed reviews, with nursing groups praising the proposal and many doctor’s groups expressing concern.

Working with former members of the military

While the VA is a powerful tool for the care of veterans, nurses should never assume that they will not work with veterans just because they are employed by another organization. In fact, according to the report published in the AJN, only about 25 percent of veterans take advantage of VA services, while the remainder seek services elsewhere. Whatever setting in which you are employed, as a nurse it is important that you are prepared to work with former service members.


In 2012, First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, announced a joint effort between the American Nurses Association and the VA to ensure that nurses receive the proper education to meet the health needs of the nation’s veterans. Much of the instruction centers on combat-related issues, such as PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Many educational institutions, including those that offer both nursing bachelor’s and MSN degrees, are also involved.

“Nurses are at the center of providing lifesaving care in communities across the country — and their reach is particularly important because our veterans don’t always seek care through the VA system,” Biden said. “This commitment is essential to ensuring our returning service men and women receive the care they deserve.”

As a nurse, one of the most important things that you can do to help your veteran patients is to make sure that they are aware of the resources that are available. To learn more, explore the following pages recommended by the ANA:


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