TAMPA — Women may still be a minority among veterans in the United States, but they're the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population.
To better serve their needs, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has signed a five-year contract with the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation to offer a women's health mini residency program.
The joint effort, announced Wednesday, aims to train VA-employed physicians and nurses on how to better address women's health care issues, said Dr. Christine Kolehmainen, director of education for Veteran Affairs Women's Health Services.
"Most of these primary care and emergency room doctors in veterans facilities are used to taking care of veterans from previous war eras, which were mostly men," said Dr. Haru Okuda, executive director of the USF simulation center, which already trains medical professionals from around the world in downtown Tampa. "This training will help prepare them to care for women vets."
Okuda previously worked for the Veterans Health Administration at SimLEARN, its national simulation center in Orlando.
Since 2001, the number of women veterans seeking medical care through the VHA has grown by 200 percent, from 160,000 women to more than 500,000, Kolehmainen said.
The residency program began in 2008 as a regional training for some doctors and nurses to address these needs. It was expanded in 2010 and has trained more than 6,000 clinicians across the country.
The three-day training program will be offered twice yearly at the USF center, known as CAMLS, which is on S Franklin Street, not far from the school's soon-to-be-completed medical school. Clinicians will sit in on lectures, read case studies and get hands-on training through USF's simulation expertise. The goal is train 250 to 350 clinicians each session.
The programming focuses on issues including pelvic pain, contraception, sexual assault, reintegration after deployment and even the strain of carrying heavy military packs.
The center employs "actors" who play the role of patients inside a mock examination room. Those role-playing experiences are critical to addressing the needs of women veterans, said Barbara Palmer, deputy field director for Women's Health Services and a registered nurse practitioner.
"These teaching assistants will tell providers things that a real patient wouldn't be comfortable saying," she said. "They're able to use their own bodies as a teaching tool for doctors."
For example, they can tell a doctor if he or she acts in a way that may be offensive, even if the doctor doesn't realize it, Palmer said.
USF hosted its first training in July, where it welcomed more than 230 clinicians. A second training is going on this week with more than 260 nurses and doctors.
The department aims to employ two certified women's health providers at every VA medical facility in the country.
Previously, the Department of Veterans Affairs worked with a medical simulation program out of the University of Central Florida to host women's health training events. But the move to Tampa offers more expertise and a wider range of services, Kolehmainen said.
Elizabeth Jackson, an Army Reserve veteran who was deployed in 2003 to Iraq, noticed a difference after her primary care doctor completed the residency program.
"She took more time with me, after having the training. She was in-depth, and addressed issues sooner," Jackson said. "Even though it's been 16 years (since my deployment), issues still come up."