I'm a Doctor and an Army Veteran. Here's Advice I Give to Veterans.
As a U.S. Army Veteran and physician who treated Vietnam War soldiers, I can attest that our brave service men and women have unique health needs. There are many health conditions that tend to affect Veterans at a higher rate, ranging from traumatic brain injuries, amputations and hearing loss to various social needs and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Here's guidance I provide to my Veteran patients:
Know the Health Risks Associated with Your Service History
In some cases, Veterans may have specific health issues related to service history. For example, Vietnam War Veterans can be at higher risk for diseases related to Agent Orange, and Korean War Veterans often see higher incident rates in diseases related to extreme cold. Depending on your illness and time of service, you may qualify for benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Talk to your doctor about your illness and check the VA website for health issues related to service history.
Address Mental Health Issues
Mental health is an extremely important part of overall health and wellbeing, and that is especially true for Veterans, who commit suicide at a 57% higher rate than the general U.S. adult population. Among those who commit suicide, many struggle with mental health issues including depression (35%), anxiety (26%) and PTSD (24%). If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact a mental health professional and review resources such as the Veterans Crisis Line. If you're not sure where to look for a certified mental health specialist, consider services such as the Give an Hour program, which helps connect Veterans with local mental health providers who donate their time to speak with Veterans.
Be Proactive with Doctor Visits and Preventive Screenings
A 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Veterans have a higher prevalence of multiple chronic conditions than civilians, especially among seniors. In fact, 67% of male Veterans over age 65 and 74% of female Veterans over age 65 reported having multiple chronic conditions.
Patients should schedule regular appointments with their doctors to help them diagnose and manage chronic conditions and communicate with their pharmacists to ensure they adhere to medications. Additionally, I recommend all patients, especially Veterans, have annual physicals, blood tests and cancer screenings and take other preventive measures to help detect chronic conditions early, which can improve health outcomes.
Don't Neglect Vision and Hearing
Military members often rely on their eyesight for accuracy in the line of duty, but Veterans should not assume their eyesight will remain sharp forever. Many experience a decline in vision as they age and should seek help from a qualified eye doctor.
Additionally, CDC research shows Veterans are at greater risk of hearing problems than civilians. Issues may include hearing loss from exposure to loud noise, sensory impairment due to traumatic brain injury or tinnitus – commonly described as a ringing in the ears. Patients should have their hearing checked at the doctor's office routinely and seek help from a specialist as needed.
Knowing they are at higher risk, patients may also consider finding a health insurance plan that covers vision and hearing to ensure all of their health needs are covered.
Seek Experts for Your Health Needs
Approximately one in four Veterans has had a service-connected disability, which can include traumatic brain injuries, amputations, loss of hearing or tinnitus, or balance disorders such as dizziness or vertigo. These disabilities can decrease a Veteran's activity level, independence and quality of life, contributing to mental health issues such as depression. Patients should not only visit their primary care physicians regularly, but they should also seek experts in their particular disability to make sure they're getting the best possible care and treatment. Specialists may cost more, so I encourage Veterans to evaluate their health insurance plans annually to be sure the doctors they need are in-network.
Find the Right Healthcare Plan for Your Needs
It's important that Veterans understand their health needs and find a health care plan that provides the quality care they deserve, especially as they age. During the Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plan Annual Election Period (AEP), which runs from Oct. 15 to Dec. 7, eligible individuals can review plans to find the best one for their health needs. Although VA and Medicare Advantage benefits do not coordinate coverage, there are plans tailored to Veterans' unique health needs and can complement VA benefits.
Individuals who are eligible for Medicare, including Veterans, can learn more about plan options at Medicare.gov, which also allows you to compare plans and estimate costs or schedule one-on-one meetings with licensed agents who can answer your questions and explain available options. Since the plan selected by the Dec. 7 deadline is likely the plan you'll have for the coming year, it's important to take time now to research and enroll in the best plan for your health needs.
Danny Westphal, MD, a healthcare executive, is a U.S. Army Veteran who served at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was proud to evaluate and treat the brave men and women returning from Vietnam. Today, he serves as a medical director for Humana, one of Florida's largest Medicare Advantage companies, where his team focuses on improving health outcomes for Humana members in South Florida.