Investing in research and treatment of traumatic brain injury can ward off future problems for veterans, including unemployment, homelessness and most importantly, suicide, Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald said Monday during opening remarks of a two-day conference on head injury in Washington, D.C.
Drawing more than 300 of the country's top TBI researchers, the VA's State of the Art Conference on traumatic brain injury State-of-the-Art conference aims to share cutting-edge approaches to detecting head injuries, treating them and solving related problems.
Since 2001, more than 327,000 troops have been diagnosed with mild, moderate and serious head injuries, according to the Congressional Research Service. But that number is likely much higher since service members often don't report mild concussions or exposure to circumstances such as blasts that cause head injury, health officials believe.
Often diagnosed side-by-side with traumatic brain injuries are mental health conditions such as depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the CRS, 138,197 post-9/11 veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD alone.
The challenge for researchers is developing new methods to detect brain injuries, understand their scope and treat them, and the VA, with its unique patient population, is poised to be a "national leader" in the field, according to McDonald,
"Our vision is VA can, should and must be the national leaders. ... We owe veterans more than 'a couple of beers, a six pack or a Darvon' to help with their pain," McDonald said, quoting lyrics from the 1984 Jerry Jeff Walker song, "Rodeo Cowboy."
To ward off a future crisis similar to the scandals that rocked the VA in 2014, McDonald said, the department must solve the puzzle to help veterans now and as they age.
"The cost of war endures far longer than the wars themselves. … What created the crisis at VA was not the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It was the aging of the Vietnam veteran. … We need the best estimates to secure resources and provide care. We need to do a really good job to forecast the challenges as we move forward," McDonald said.
VA spent $36,222,000 on research in 2014. McDonald said science is as important to VA health care as education and clinical care, the three pillars of the Veterans Health Administration.
"We have an obligation to get this right, otherwise, there's another axis problem lying in wait. Let's not leave another unresolved problem as our legacy. ... We owe it to all of our veterans," he implored researchers.
The conference will address multiple aspects of TBI research and care, including concurrent mental health issues, head injury imaging and diagnosis, reintegration into society, pain management, best care practices, and more.
On Tuesday, the conference also will hold four special sessions for caregivers of veterans with head injury.
Dr. Geoffrey Ling, director of biological technologies at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said TBI is an insidious condition that physicians and anyone close to a veteran with a potential head injury must look for.
Calling those with head injuries the "walking wounded," because many are unaware they have an impairment, Ling said VA is best positioned to lead research and foment change on treatment.
"If you do not look, you will not find," Ling told physicians and researchers at the conference. "Someone has to lead the way. Let it be us."
The conference runs Monday and Tuesday in Washington near Capitol Hill.