The University of Alabama

UA, VA Partner to Meet Needs of Rural Veterans

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have partnered together to create a trained workforce capable of meeting the medical and mental health needs of veterans in rural communities.

The VA’s Office of Rural Health and Office of Academic Affiliations awarded five sites, Tuscaloosa being one, a three-year grant to develop and implement the Rural Health Education and Training Initiative last fall. Since then, two more sites have also been selected.

The grant focuses on a collaborative team-based approach to health care, often referred to as interprofessional care, with an emphasis on serving veterans in rural communities, said Kristin Pettey, rural consultant for the VA Southeast Network.

“Of the veterans we have, about half are considered rural,” Pettey said. “There are a lot of veterans living in rural communities, and many receive some sort of primary care in their community. It’s very likely that a general health-care provider in those areas would encounter veterans. Having the opportunity to provide instruction on veteran culture and what it means to care for veterans is very important.”

The grant is a joint effort with the Tuscaloosa VA, UA’s Capstone College of Nursing, the College of Community Health Sciences, the School of Social Work and the psychology department, and it includes several pieces.

The first component was the creation of a nurse practitioner concentration in mental health and primary care for rural populations, with a strong focus of meeting the needs of rural veterans. When nurses complete the two-year Master of Science in Nursing degree, they are eligible to sit for certification as both a family psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and a family nurse practitioner.

“Having a nurse practitioner who will encompass both mental and family health is the ideal individual to work with the veteran and rural population,” said project director Dr. Marsha Howell Adams, the nursing college’s senior associate dean of academic programs and a nursing professor.

The first class started in August with six students, five of whom are currently employed by the VA. Dr. Leigh Ann Poole, coordinator of the nurse practitioner concentration, said additional students will be accepted in the fall, and priority will be given to those employed by the VA or who live and work in rural Alabama.

The other component to the grant involves interprofessional care. Students in various disciplines – medical, nursing, psychology, social work – will train at the VA in order to learn about veteran care and veteran culture.

“Compared to any general, random middle-aged man or woman, there are different experiences a veteran might have lived through, especially if that veteran was in a combat situation,” Pettey said. “There could be PTSD, exposure to different chemicals, possible traumatic brain injury. Just knowing what to look for and how to gain a veteran’s trust is key.”

As part of that interprofessional focus, the different disciplines are developing a course where students from those disciplines will learn the roles of each area and how those roles fit together as part of a whole treatment plan, said Dr. Karl Hamner, assistant dean of scholarly affairs for nursing and social work and a co-author of the grant.

“The students are able to work as a team, so when they move into the field, not only do they have experience working with veterans, but also working with each other,” he said. “That’s where the innovation is.”

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.