A battle for health

Queen’s and Royal Military College jointly launch first ever Canadian military and veteran health research network

Alice Aiken, director of the military and veteran health research network says by linking researchers from across Canada, research on everything from battlefield medicine to mental health will be promoted.
Alice Aiken, director of the military and veteran health research network says by linking researchers from across Canada, research on everything from battlefield medicine to mental health will be promoted.

A first of its kind research network has been launched in order to provide medical advances specific to the health needs of military personnel, veterans and their families.

Queen’s, the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) and the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR) have teamed up to bring together researchers from across Canada.

Alice Aiken, professor in the School of Rehabilitation Therapy and director of the military and veteran health research network, said independent researchers will now be able to communicate with one another about various health conditions faced by military personnel.

“We’re looking at everything, battlefield medicine to mental health to social health,” she said, adding that researchers can even examine how policies come into play. “The hub will be at Queen’s.”

Aiken said the initiative will deal directly with the discovery and treatment of health issues specific to the men and women who have served in war zones and their families.

“The example most people can see is Afghanistan and I think people coming back from Afghanistan have been exposed to psychological and physical stressors that they wouldn’t have necessarily been exposed to in Canada,” Aiken said, adding that this can trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Aiken said.

“The issue became as big as it is today, in part, thanks to Romeo Dallaire sharing his experiences.”

The network will focus on issues such as how the treatment for PTSD can be improved as well as looking at social issues faced by military families.

For example, families of military personnel are less likely than the general population of Canada to have a family doctor, most likely because they are forced to move around.

“25 per cent do not have a family doctor,” Aiken said.

The idea for the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research sprung from a forum held in Kingston in November 2010, which discussed the health care issues faced by military personnel, veterans and their families, Aiken said.

“Basically what we did is that we recognized that there was a need for a co-ordinated research effort [from universities] across the country and that it wasn’t being done so a group of us started working on getting it together,” she said.

Having served in the military herself, Aiken said she’s particularly interested in ensuring the well-being of military personnel, both active and retired.

“I am very passionate about military veterans and their families. A lot of research is being done [in universities], but is not being communicated effectively.” The forum, held on Nov. 16 to 17, was more popular than anyone could have hoped, Aiken said.

“We had a waitlist that consisted of over 100 people. It blew us out of the water,” she said, adding that the forum was able to have expert participants.

“We were also lucky enough to have Senator Romeo Dallaire moderate one of the sessions at the forum for us.” Following the forum the idea for the network was presented to the University for approval.

In order to have the creation of the research network approved, Aiken said she had to submit a proposal to the Senate Advisory Research Council (SARC).

“It was very quick. We had 31 engaged faculty members from Queen’s,” she said, adding that these faculty members were people who supported the creation of the network. “I was then asked to speak to my proposal in front of SARC.”

Aiken said the details of how the network will function are still under discussion.

“We’re still in the process of deciding what it will look like,” she said.

According to Aiken, so far there are 20 universities other than Queen’s on board for the new research initiative and the network will function similarly to those in other countries.

“We’re the only NATO country that doesn’t have a network like this.” Although costs of the network haven’t been finalized, Aiken said a network like the one that functions in Australia costs $25 million annually.

Aiken said there is currently a separate healthcare system for military personnel in Canada.

“Members of the military are covered by their own health care system, not provincially. All services are provided in the same location,” she said, adding that this would happen at a military base, for example.

Aiken said that for certain procedures, military personnel might need to use the civilian system, but that procedure may not be available where they are deployed. The new network serves to connect the two health systems to each other.

“Our vision is that Kingston [through] Queen’s and RMC is the hub for this pan-Canadian research network. So when priorities need to be researched, they can be communicated from university to university. It’s all about networking,” Aiken said.

When asked why a network like this has not been created until now, Aiken said it has to do with the Canadian public.

“First of all, politically, the Canadian public might not have accepted it at an earlier time. After the first Gulf War when I served, it would not have been a popular idea. Whether people agree with Afghanistan or not, they certainly support our troops,” she told the Journal via email. “The military does a unique job and they need our support. Moreover, I don’t know that anyone has ever tried to create a network like this.”

With files from Clare Clancy

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