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Early detection of PTSD in military service members: Progress through technology

Predictive analytic software expands treatment capabilities of DoD, VA health care providers

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The U.S. military is comprised of warriors trained to do what is needed to protect and defend our country. Service members are expected to be physically and mentally tough despite dealing with the emotions and stresses of combat each day.

The current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are unlike any others in our nation's history. As reported by the Associated Press, Defense officials have stated that troops are under tremendous and unprecedented stress because of repeated and long tours of duty in the simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 86 percent of service members in the Army and Marine Corps deployed to Iraq were exposed to severely traumatic and disturbing events. Even before service members return home, the emotions, images and anxieties they have experienced become the scars of war. Once they return home, these scars continue to impact their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a medical condition that can occur after an individual experiences extreme emotional or psychological trauma. People experiencing PTSD may display signs of stress, anger, irregular sleeping patterns, substance abuse and even violent behavior toward their family, friends and co-workers. All too often these signs are not identified or are misdiagnosed, further compounding the problem. Additionally, those suffering from PTSD may be reluctant to seek help due to the stigma associated with mental illness.

Since 2003, 40,000 deployed service members have received the diagnosis of PTSD; the Army Surgeon General believes that the real number is even higher. Senior Defense officials stated in January that suicides among Army troops have soared to a nearly three-decade high. The Veterans Health Administration confirmed that veteran-committed suicides account for approximately 20 percent of the total annual number of suicides in the United States, or one person in five. The Suicide Prevention Action Network USA has additionally found that male veterans are twice as likely to die by suicide as male non-veterans. These alarming statistics indicate that much more needs to be done to identify symptoms and support treatment for our veterans returning from war.

Virtually all service members know someone who was killed or severely injured. Because of these traumas, many of these individuals return home with not only external but internal scars. Yet for a number of reasons, many veterans may be not receiving the care they need for their combat stress-related conditions. These include the stigma associated with seeking treatment, the lack of trained professionals available to treat those experiencing distress, and even the lack of awareness of the signs and symptoms of mild combat stress that can escalate if left untreated.

Identifying the problem with technology

Due to today's advanced technology capabilities, a unique opportunity exists to support service members and families battling this condition.

Web-based case management and client tracking applications now operate in an environment that is secure enough to protect medical and mental health records in compliance with HIPAA requirements. Sensitive data can be maintained in a secure environment available to all authorized providers, overcoming the limitations of paper-based charting systems filed in several different provider offices. New data mining and predictive analytics tools can evaluate an individual's information for early signs of combat-related stress providing the opportunity to implement treatment plans before symptoms escalate.

These tools enable physicians, behavioral health providers and case managers to take treatment approaches to a new level through information available in real time, providing earlier detection of conditions and shared data from multiple providers.

Custom systems can now be developed by leveraging existing technology to reduce application development time and costs. For example, Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT) SQL Server database can provide the capacity to handle terabytes of data using rapid, efficient ETL database transactions to process information from disparate raw data sources. Predictive analysis of data can then be managed through a .NET-based, rapid application development platform that provides user management, navigation and data manipulation controls. In doing so, providers can organize prediction groups, search and sort these groups, track their histories and export data for use in case management and other patient monitoring systems.

Going beyond detection

Identifying potential PTSD sufferers is just the beginning of what automated case management systems can provide. These Web-based tools can also provide treatment resources for education and self-care directly to individuals via an Internet connection in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Incorporating online training that provides information, guidance and support for those returning from deployment can make an enormous positive impact on the recovery time and the quality of life of the patient and their families.

What now?

Combat stress can be difficult to detect initially until the disorder has deepened and outward signs and behaviors manifest. Many individuals choose to suppress their feelings in fear they will be viewed as weak or treated differently. For military personnel, the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health issues can be perceived as an impact to their careers and livelihood. News articles appear almost daily on service members returning from war and the difficulties they face, oftentimes with tragic consequences.

The technology to support new approaches to diagnosis and treatment are available today. It is our responsibility as a nation to put these systems in place now to support service members and families suffering from this devastating condition, just as they have supported our country in preserving our freedom and way of life.

Burke is the CEO of DefenseWeb Technologies, a premier custom software developer and systems integrator serving Department of Defense and federal government organizations. He can be reached at info@defenseweb.com.

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