Inspired by We Honor Veterans , a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs, Dr. Charles Stinson brought the program back to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center years ago.

“The program was created to make us more aware of the veterans in our midst and how we need to understand and care for their unique needs,” said Stinson, who specializes in hospice and palliative care. “I took some of the principles back to Forsyth Medical Center, and it’s been amazing to watch the program’s growth.”

Connecting with the veteran community

When he first presented the idea of the program to 200 hospital leaders and health care providers, he asked how many people have connections to veterans. “Everyone except four people stood up,” he said. “It made my jaw drop to see what a connected community this was that we were not even aware of.”

Through the We Honor Veterans program, providers and volunteers alike were trained at the program’s onset in how to talk to and take oral histories from veterans so their care can be personalized. Stinson underscored that it’s the little things.

“We ask, ‘Have you ever been in the military?’” he said. “Asking if someone has war experience may not work if the veteran served during peace time. Just asking that question starts the conversation.  It makes you aware there may be some other things you need to address.”

Stinson recalled one patient who, when placed in a room with a blocked window view, told him he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his room made him feel like he was back in prison camp. “You need to change the room I’m in,” he told Stinson.

“I probably wouldn’t have been as sensitive to the request if I hadn’t understood why it was being made,” Stinson said.

Stinson added that his own father, a World War II veteran, admitted to his local Veterans Affairs office in his 80s that he still had dreams of hand-to-hand combat. “I about fell on the floor because I thought all of that had resolved years prior,” Stinson said. “It’s amazing to understand that these experiences can follow veterans their entire lives – and their experiences can resurface with serious or acute illness.”

“Understanding who someone is, where they’re from and their life experiences is so, so important,” Stinson said. “Sometimes we get so focused on the five-minute health exam that we forget the story is still the most important part of the interview and gives you the most information. I tell folks the lab work is only one part of the puzzle in trying to care for the patient.”

Going beyond the conversation

Novant Health’s work with veterans goes beyond the conversation. As part of the We Honor Veterans program, Novant Health providers ask permission to place American flags on veterans’ doors to honor their service.

“It’s rare that a veteran doesn’t want a flag,” Stinson said. “It’s amazing to see patients and their families light up while talking about their experience prompted in a very simple way. The flags also quickly alert our case managers and nursing staff to which patients are veterans and may be eligible for access to additional services. It really helps us help our patients as they try to get back into their homes.”

In addition, veteran volunteers are carefully chosen and trained – people who can share in the camaraderie and who understand it may take time for veterans to share their stories – stories that, according to Stinson, can quickly become potentially passionate or serious. And providers are also trained annually on the unique needs of veterans during an annual series that simultaneously honors the veterans among the health care providers.

“On Veterans Day, we serve the veterans in our midst with cafeteria refreshments and provide pins for team members across our facilities to honor their service,” Stinson said. Monthly coffee meetings and support groups also help veterans feel connected. And, Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center has parking spaces reserved for veterans year-round.

Improving coordination of care for veterans who receive care at multiple locations is also important. Two years ago, Novant Health electronic health records became connected to the Veterans Affairs through the eHealth Exchange, the federal level Health Information Exchange. The connection allows clinicians to securely share patient information across both systems without paper or faxing.

And, Stinson said support groups for military caregivers may be in the works. Novant Health currently offers resources online for caregivers. 

“Our program has experienced a lot of grassroots growth based on the needs we see,” Stinson said. “On average, Forsyth Medical Center admits five veterans every day – and even more are seen in our outpatient practices. We’re committed to providing them the best care possible.”