'Second-hand trauma' to blame for 20 percent turnover of VA staff who treat women veterans, Congresswoman says

Abbie Bennett
September 11, 2019 - 4:22 pm

U.S. Navy photo by Chief Petty Officer Lowell Whitman

There is an about 20-percent turnover rate each year for women's health providers at VA medical centers, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., said that she and the Women Veterans Task Force learned during their travels to VA medical centers across the U.S. that the high turnover rate could be due to "second-hand trauma." Brownley serves as chairwoman for the task force. 

"We've really learned that the high rate of trauma within the women veteran community can cause secondary trauma to the healthcare providers because they're listening to so many traumatic stories," Brownley said at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday. 

And that high turnover rate only makes things harder for remaining staff, Brownley added.

"Staffing shortfalls have made it even more challenging for the providers because if there are less providers, they have more tragic stories to hear," she said. 

Brownley said she wanted to ensure VA was performing exit surveys with providers who were choosing to leave the agency and wanted to know what VA was learning from those leaving about how to retain women veterans' providers.

Teresa Boyd, assistant deputy undersecretary at the VA, said the agency does perform exit interviews but is also working to reach out to other employees to find out why they stay at VA. 

"With regard to burnout and exhaustion, workload, depersonalization," Boyd said VA is learning more through its all-employee survey.

Patricia Hayes, chief consultant of the VA's Women's Health  Services, described women veterans' healthcare providers at VA as "overburdened." 

"We've been doing a deep dive on their burnout and their retention issues," Hayes told the Congressional committee, adding that the VA has been doing interviews with current providers and those that have left the agency. "What we're finding out is the population (of women veterans) has grown so fast and we haven't gotten enough help -- not enough providers at each site ... they often don't have the appropriate nursing staff ... and the tremendous sense of the complexity of these patients with trauma histories and usually several physical comorbidities. These are very complex patients. It's too much."

Hayes said VA is working to "attack all these issues" to come up with action plans for VA leadership in "the next month or so" to begin making changes and hiring more providers. 

"The primary care provider recruitment issue is beyond women's health as well," Hayes added. "It's a problem nationally."

Brownley's comments and the VA's response begin at the 48-minute mark in this video of the hearing.  

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett

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