Florida International University

Florida International University (June 27, 2014)

The VA system may be best known for its problems these days, but Florida International University is about to become be part of a solution.

FIU's College of Nursing and the Miami Veterans Affairs Healthcare System have received more than $8 million in federal funding to train 20 to 40 additional nurses a year. Their focus will be on veterans-related health care issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, mental health issues, chemical exposure and major traumatic limb loss and rehabilitation.

These undergraduate students, the first 20 of whom will start this fall, will get clinical training in the Miami VA Hospital, and some will be offered special residencies with the Miami VA after they graduate. Others will take jobs at other VAs or in the private sector.

"As thousands of U.S. troops continue returning home to their families, today's practicing nurses and future professionals must be more prepared to understand and manage the differences and complexity of caring for military patients and veterans," said Marcia Lysaght, associate director of patient care services at the Miami VA.

About half of the 1.9 million troops discharged after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan have come home in need of medical care, VA data show.

FIU joins about 20 other universities around the country to be selected for a VA Nursing Academy Partnership, funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Florida has three, more than any other state. The University of Florida in Gainesville was one of the first schools selected in 2007 and the University of South Florida in Tampa received a grant a year later.

VA hospitals have been under intense scrutiny recently due widespread problems, including patients waiting months for appointments and allegations of fraud. While patient records at every facility have been audited by Veterans Affairs, the hospitals in Miami and West Palm Beach are not among those subject to further review.

Air Force veteran Michael Coleman, of Delray Beach, said he's generally had good care at the West Palm Beach facility and welcomes any push to add more help.

"It will be nice to have more nurses on the floor help attend to the veterans," he said.

VA facilities, like other hospitals in Florida, have faced a nursing shortage in recent years. But an infusion of more nurses probably won't fix the long wait lists, experts said.

"It's a more a physician shortage phenomenon," said Linda Quick, president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association. "You don't make an appointment with a nurse. You make it with a physician."

But some may go to become nurse practitioners, who can see patients and reduce backlogs, said Ora Strickland, dean of FIU's nursing school.

And they can improve patient care due to their specialized knowledge, she said.

"One of the areas where there's a real need is psychiatric mental health, and we've built into our program special preparation for these nursing students," Strickland said.

She said nurses are trained to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder, but usually as it relates to civilians, such as surviving a severe car accident or seeing someone murdered.

"It's amplified for veterans," she said. "Those who have been in battle have seen a lot of people killed or injured and may also have been threatened by loss of life and limb themselves."

Deborah Clarke, chief nurse for surgery at the Miami VA, said current nurses at the VA are serving patients well.

"But people retire and leave. It will be nice to know we have a cadre of people coming into the system who can hit the ground running," she said.

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