“World class research takes world class collaboration and 100% commitment.” How a close partnership is producing ground-breaking research on the long-term effects of PTSD on veterans.
Back in the late 1960s and early 70s when veterans were returning from Vietnam, the term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) did not exist. A diagnosis of PTSD would have been as foreign to veterans as the country they had just returned from.
In fact, the term PTSD did not appear in the American Psychiatric Association’s manual on psychiatric disorders until 1980. The last Australian troops left Vietnam in 1973.
It is not surprising then, that little is known about the long-term physical and psychological side effects of PTSD on returning veterans.
In a world-first study, the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation (GMRF) in collaboration with RSL Queensland, conducted a three-year study, the PTSD Initiative – Research to Restore Lives, to examine the long-term side effects of PTSD on veterans.
After the study was completed in 2016, it was handed over to Australian information and data specialists GWI, who overlayed the study’s findings with Queensland’s open data to look at community health trends, support groups, location of public transport and other services needed by returned personnel.
Findings from the ground-breaking research have already been used to develop educational materials for the medical fraternity, the community at large and veterans and their families. They will also be used to help younger returned veterans.
Miriam Dwyer, CEO of GMRF explains that there had long been a gap in available information about the physical and psychological impacts of PTSD, which was the catalyst for the ambitious four-year project.
And the results of the PTSD Initiative are sobering.
Key findings found one in four returned Vietnam veterans developed PTSD and that 8.3% of Australian Defence Force members will have experienced PTSD in the past 12 months against an Australian community average of 5.2%.
The study also revealed veterans with PTSD were:
- Four times more likely to have had a heart attack
- Twice as likely to have abnormal liver texture (suggesting liver disease)
- Two to three times more likely to suffer gastro intestinal problems
- Three times more likely to have obstructive sleep apnoea
- Four times more likely to have a fatty liver
- More likely to have decreased lung function
Dwyer says the study clearly demonstrated the presence of physical symptoms in veterans who had PTSD, illustrating the condition was both physical and psychological. This, she says, indicates the condition should be treated holistically.
“We are now using the results of this study to employ strategies to prevent these long-term health consequences in younger veterans by educating the medical profession on recognising the physical and psychological symptoms of PTSD earlier,” says Dwyer.
“We are also currently undertaking research looking at the challenges faced by some military personnel as they transition from the Australian Defence Force to the civilian world and the reintegration and cultural adjustment issues they can face.”
PTSD is a serious mental health condition which affects more than one million Australians annually.
“By educating the community on the physical and mental challenges experienced by some of those who have served, we hope to increase awareness and understanding and, as a consequence, reduce the stigma around PTSD,” says Dwyer.
She points out that while most veterans do not experience symptoms of PTSD, those that do may be challenged by everyday social circumstances. These challenges can be treated allowing the veteran to enjoy a high quality of life.
Former British solider and GWI’s CEO Neil Makepeace explains that their data analysis for GMRF was undertaken as part of the company’s commitment to dedicating a percentage of annual turnover to pro bono work for non-profits as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility program.
“At GWI, we have a strong commitment to supporting initiatives we believe will be of benefit to current and former members of the defence forces,” he says.
“We felt this was an important study for veterans past and present, but also for the community as a whole and., as such, it was an important project we thought we would be able to help because of our access to data analytics capabilities.
“We share the conviction of the Gallipoli Medical Research Foundation that by engaging and educating the community about PTSD, we can help to remove the stigma, encourage those who have it to seek treatment and ensure that as a community, the required treatments are made available where they are needed.”
USING DATA FOR CHANGE
Makepeace says overlaying open data onto the GMRF PTSD Initiative data provided new insights which may have been otherwise lost.
“The data collected from GMRF’s PTSD Initiative – Research to Restore Lives has the potential to bring about tangible and meaningful improvement if it is applied effectively,” he says.
“Our years of working with data mean we have a strong understanding of how it can be utilised to affect meaningful change. Data by itself can be meaningless; it only becomes of tangible worth when analysed correctly and best used holistically. At GWI we know data can inspire discovery and empower action.
“With GMRF we were able to take the information they had gathered, overlay it with data for Queensland specifically, and use this to build a more vivid picture of where the needs for support and services are and what they should look like.
“It is quite something to look at the power of data and what can be achieved with it. And for us, this is where partnerships and work are important.”
Julie Kilner, Consulting Manager and data analytics specialist with GWI, says the PTSD Initiative was an important step in ensuring the right support for returned services personnel was provided at the right locations.
“We know that the most effective way of treating PTSD is by early recognition of the symptoms followed up with early intervention,” Kilner says.
“However, the data really is best understood when it is looked at holistically.
“We also wanted to take the data and make it into something which is more easily digestible by the broader community to help educate them.”
Dwyer says the partnership with GWI, which allowed GMRF to reap the benefits of data mining technology and capabilities, was critical to expanding the reach of the study.
“We were able to more clearly articulate what our typical Vietnam veteran study participant with and without PTSD looks like,” she explains.
“We could look at where they live and the health care and community services available to them using open data. This can potentially be used by the relevant authorities when reviewing the health and community services that should be considered important for younger veterans with PTSD as they age.”
Dwyer says research such as the PTSD Initiative simply could not be undertaken without corporate donations and sponsorship.
RSL Queensland had been a supporter of GMRF since it was established in 2005 and, in 2012, offered to finance the research with a $1.75 million grant over three years.
“In 2012, when GMRF identified the need to undertake a world-first research project looking at the long-term physical impacts of PTSD on veterans, RSL Queensland was the first partner we sought out,” says Dwyer. “This partnership made perfect sense to both parties.
“GMRF was established to investigate health issues that affect the veteran community and GMRF has the clinical and academic expertise to undertake high impact, clinically relevant research.”
Dwyer describes the relationship between GMRF and RSL Queensland as “a partnership in the truest sense of the word”.
“The funding was incredibly important as was RSL Queensland’s help in recruiting research participants and, as importantly, its work to actively communicate the results of the study directly to veterans and their families through its various channels of communication,” she says.
“Communicating results clearly is critical and this is why GMRF partnered with GWI to help clearly profile the typical participant in our study. Together we hope to translate our research results so that they can be easily understood by all.”
Dwyer says the importance and value of the research was further acknowledged and supported by RSL Queensland in 2015, when it announced it would commit an additional $5 million to GMRF research into PTSD for an additional five years.
The PTSD Initiative would not have been possible without significant funding from RSL Queensland, and in-kind support of GWI, Greenslopes Private Hospital, Sullivan & Nicolaides Pathology and QLD X-Ray.
“World class research takes world class collaboration and 100% commitment,” says Dwyer.