Don't overlook unique health needs of veterans

Ask about hazardous exposure concerns

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a wide range of occupational health concerns including a 55% prevalence of mental health issues, most commonly post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a new study.1

When researchers analyzed the health concerns of 56 veterans, many issues were identified, with an average of four physical health concerns per veteran. Musculoskeletal problems were the most common. These were followed by ear, nose, and throat problems and gastrointestinal issues. Concerns about the long-term effects of potentially hazardous exposures during deployment also were common.

When assessing the health of employees who are returning veterans, proactively ask about these concerns, says Drew A. Helmer, MD, MS, the study's author and physician/researcher at the VA — New Jersey Health Care System. "Occupational health clinicians are experienced with regard to environmental and occupational exposure assessments, but will likely need to partner with primary care providers to ensure veterans have access to knowledgeable evaluations," says Helmer.

Veterans may have concerns that are not addressed because they are not sure who to ask or may not be able to find and access an occupational health clinician, says Helmer. "Veterans discharged from military service who rely on private practitioners may not be aware of the occupational health clinician or how to be evaluated by one," he says. "I suspect that some primary care providers may not know much about these deployment-related exposure concerns and may, therefore, be inclined to minimize or ignore them."

Since occupational and environmental exposure concerns are common in veterans, anything occupational health clinicians can do to increase awareness and evidence-based assessment and treatment would be beneficial, says Helmer. At each VA Medical Center, at least one environmental health clinician is designated to serve as a resource for patients and providers regarding deployment-related exposure concerns, says Helmer. (A variety of brochures and fact sheets about environmental agents are available at no charge at the Department of Veterans Affairs web site

Occupational health clinicians interested in seeing returning veterans should consider reaching out to primary care providers and veterans groups, suggests Helmer. "At the very least, you may gain broader 'name recognition' for the occupational health specialty and build goodwill in your community," he says.


1. Helmer, DA, Rossignol M, Blatt M. Health and exposure concerns of veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. J Occ Environ Med 2007; 49:475-480.


For more information about occupational health needs of veterans, contact:

  • Drew A. Helmer, MD, MS, Physician/Researcher, VA — New Jersey Health Care System. Phone: (973) 676-1000 Ext. 2714. E-mail: