There was a time when yoga classes at a VA hospital would have seemed as out of place as poetry readings during boot camp.
Times have changed.
Nowadays, yoga is just one of several complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practices that have caught on big at VA. Meditation and acupuncture are two more.
According to a 2011 survey, nearly nine of 10 VA facilities offered at least one CAM therapy.
While more CAM studies are needed, research on these practices has been picking up. The latest findings from several groups of VA researchers recently appeared online in the journal Medical Care, as part of a supplement sponsored by VA’s Office of Patient-Centered Care and Cultural Transformation.
The topics reported on are diverse: mindfulness-based stress reduction, chiropractic, vitamins and supplements, and more. What are Veterans doing in and outside of VA, and what are the impacts? The articles provide a window into these timely questions. Importantly, the research covers CAM across the entire spectrum of Veterans: men and women, young and old. Many Veterans are looking into how CAM can help them, whether it’s for arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease or PTSD and chronic pain.
Study probes OEF-OIF Veterans’ use of CAM
One study, led by a team at VA’s War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center, pulled data from the larger National Health Study for a New Generation of U.S. Veterans. The results showed that about 15 percent of OEF-OIF Veterans had used at least one CAM treatment in the past year. The Veterans were asked only about their use of CAM for a specific health problem. The authors speculate that the figure would likely have been higher—probably around 30 or 40 percent—had the Veterans been asked about their use of CAM more generally for wellness and disease prevention.
Much of VA’s research on CAM is done by the Health Services Research and Development (HSR&D) division of the Office of Research and Development. In particular, HSR&D has used its Evidence-Based Synthesis Program (ESP) to compile “evidence maps” on different CAM treatments. These maps provide an overview of the evidence that exists to date, and point to what types of further studies are needed. Recent ESP reports on CAM cover mindfulness, tai chi, yoga, and acupuncture. The findings help set the course for future research, and they help VA policymakers determine which therapies have a strong enough evidence base to be incorporated into Veterans’ care.
Joint effort with NIH
More research on CAM is now underway in VA, thanks in part to a recent joint effort involving VA and the National Institutes of Health. The agencies are providing $21.7 million over five years for 13 new projects focused on non-drug approaches to treating PTSD, drug abuse, and sleep issues. Read about the new projects here.
All in all, it seems that CAM is indeed an idea whose time has come. And VA is playing an important role by conducting rigorous research to show what works and what doesn’t, and then applying those findings into Veterans’ care.
Mitch Mirkin, based in Baltimore, is a supervisory writer-editor with VA Research Communications. He has been with VA since 2000. Earlier in his career, he was managing editor of a community newspaper and publications manager for a large nonprofit healthcare facility, both in the Philadelphia area.