Panel calls for annual PTSD screenings

The Institute of Medicine recommended this week that soldiers returning from combat undergo annual screening for post-traumatic stress disorder and that federal agencies conduct more research to determine how well the various treatments for PTSD are working.

Veteran Richard Dressler of Surfside Beach agrees with the reporter. He attributes PTSD for several problems he has faced in life.

"I got divorced, I don't really talk to my kids that much," he said.

Dressler said if it wasn't for the counseling he received at the Horry County Vet Center, he would probably still be lost.

Unlike a veteran's clinic which offers medical services, the Horry County Vet Center offers counseling services for military service men and women as well as their families. Horry County has a large veteran population, with the majority having served in Vietnam.

"I waited way too long and the only reason why I waiting was because the availability wasn't there for me. We didn't have PTSD then."

Of the 2.6 million service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it's estimated that 13 percent to 20 percent have symptoms of PTSD.

Federal agencies have increasingly dedicated more resources to screen and treat soldiers, but considerable gaps remain, according to the Institute of Medicine, an independent group of experts that advises the federal government on medical issues. Its recommendations often make their way into laws drafted by Congress and policies implemented by federal agencies.

Barely more than half of those diagnosed with PTSD actually get treatment, often because many soldiers worry it could jeopardize their careers. Also, when soldiers do get care, they're not tracked to determine which treatments are successful in the long-term.

The Department of Defense provides medical care to active members of the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs cares for those who no longer serve. Sandro Galea, the chairman of the Institute of Medicine panel, said both departments offer many programs for PTSD.

"But treatment isn't reaching everyone who needs it, and the departments aren't tracking which treatments are being used or evaluating how well they work in the long term," said Galea, a professor and chair of the epidemiology department at Columbia University. "In addition, DOD has no information on the effectiveness of its programs to prevent PTSD."

The report concludes only the first phase of the Institute of Medicine study. The panel, which advises the government, is hoping to release a second report in 2014 that will provide more specifics about the number of service members and vets who have PTSD and the outcomes and costs of their treatments.

The panel praised the two departments for issuing joint guidelines for managing PTSD, but it's unknown whether their providers adhere to the guidelines. The panel said that primary care doctors within the VA screen Iraq and Afghanistan veterans annually for symptoms of PTSD, and it recommends that the Defense Department do the same.

The panel said it is hopeful that the departments will make more use of therapy through videoconferences that will allow patients in remote locations to get care.

The panel also called for more research to shed light on the brain's defense mechanisms for stress, identify factors that can influence the timing and severity of symptoms and identify signs that could help lead to earlier diagnosis and more precise drug treatments.

The report said that the VA treated more than 438,000 veterans for PTSD in 2010, showing evidence of the widespread scope of the problem. Similar numbers are not available for the DOD. Cynthia O. Smith, a DOD spokeswoman, said the department has already taken steps to address some of the issues raised in the report.

"The department recognizes the need for continued improvements," Smith said.

The VA said it would review the report and noted that it recently announced it was adding 1,600 clinicians and 300 support workers to its mental health staff.

"We have already made strong progress, but we need to do more," the department said in a written response to the report.

As for Dressler, he attends group counseling twice a week at the Horry County Vet Center. He also is the proud owner of Sundance, a golden retriever service dog.

"He gets me out of being me," Dressler said.

The AP contributed to this report.