New Jersey

Rutgers University Takes Unique Approach to Veteran Medical Care

Members of the military lay their lives on the line for our country every day but once they come home, it's our job to take care of them. 

That's why First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden’s started the Joining Forces Initiative in 2012. The initiative seeks to educate medical students on how to tend to the specific needs of veterans and their families.

Schools like Rutgers University, that are associated with the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, have been taking part in the program since its inception.

Doctors Robert Like and Carol Terregino were the champions who pushed to bring "Joining Forces" to Rutgers with the support of local hospitals and other academic units at the university.

Both serve as educators and course designers.

"Each year a cohort of well-prepared Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson graduates will leave the school with the skills to recognize the issues specific to veterans, to empathize with their challenges and to know how to access care for these individuals and their families," said Dr. Terregino.

Like -- a member of the medical school’s Center for Healthy Families and Cultural Diversity -- sees the initiative as a chance to create physicians who effectively treat veterans in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

More importantly, he sees it as a chance to create physicians who can work in the civilian and private sector where many health officials are not trained to recognize PTSD or know how to coax delicate information from a patient who has been involved in active warfare.

"We need to understand the stories and experiences of our veterans," said Like.

One of his most important goals is teaching his students to develop a bond of respect and trust with their patient.

Like describes the mandatory course as an "interprofessional learning program," an idea created by Terregino to bring colleagues together. That's why students studying psychology, nursing, social work, pharmacy, physical therapy, neuroscience, psychiatry, and physician assistance are also required to participate in the classes.  

"The whole idea is a collaborative team approach," Like said. "It’s dealing with the medical issues as well as the behavioral health and social issues."

The curriculum was adapted from the work of Like’s colleagues, Ronald Steptoe and Dr. Evelyn Lewis, retired army and navy veterans, who are both involved in Warrior-Centric Healthcare.

During intensive sessions, students learn about military culture, the epidemiology of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, neurobiology, the diversity of the armed forces, and the reintegration of soldiers into normal society.

Role-playing and case study exercises with actual veterans are also a crucial part of the program during small group sessions.

Based on feedback, the university plans on restructuring the program by weaving it through all four years of medical school instead of an all-day, 8-hour session during the students’ fourth year.

"What I would like is support so that we can triangulate the veteran support at Rutgers University for undergraduates, the educational programming for all of the health professions schools of Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences (as well as other programs in social work, applied psychology) and the behavioral health support at University Behavioral Healthcare."

"Know a good granting agency?" she asked.

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