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5,000 people leave the Canadian military each year; A PhD student looks at how they should be supported

5,000 people leave the Canadian military each year; A PhD student looks at how they should be supported

When Ashley Williams’ brother left the military in 2015 after nine years of service, she witnessed the challenges he encountered with the transition to civilian life. Her brother, Shane, had been in the military since graduating high school. He left voluntarily to return home to Newfoundland. At the time, Ashley was working in Ontario as an occupational therapist with a family health team.

Although Shane had no health issues, Ashley found herself wondering how Veterans adjust to having to rely on provincial health care.

What many of us don’t realize is that members of the military have continuous access to the Canadian Forces Health Services. “This access requires next to no navigation on their part,” Ashley explains. It occurred to Ashley that making the transition to the provincial healthcare system – where the patient has to take charge of their care – could pose a significant challenge to Veteran populations.

Ashley Williams

GRAD CHAT with Ashley Williams, PhD student in Rehabilitation Science supervised by Drs Catherine Donnelly and Heidi Cramm .

Topic: Access to primary health care during the military to civilian transition.

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There are about 5,000 members of the Canadian military who leave for civilian life every year. In addition to considering how well they navigate the public system, Ashley wondered how well healthcare professionals understand the unique needs of Veterans. “We don’t know whether a persons’ status as a Veteran is something that is on the radar of primary care providers,” she says. “This may have implications for the care provided to Veterans.”

Ashley, whose MSc in Occupational Therapy is from the School of Rehabilitation Therapy at Queen’s, is now in the third year of her PhD in Rehabilitation Science.

In order to explore these questions about the care of Veterans – and to look at how the healthcare system could be improved to help people like her brother – she needed funding.

This past October, Ashley was thrilled to find out that she was the 2019 recipient of a $40,000 doctoral scholarship from Wounded Warriors Canada. Wounded Warriors is an independent veterans’ charity focusing on mental health and was founded in 2006. Applications for the award are submitted to the Queen’s-based Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR). The winner is determined by an independent academic review committee.

The prestigious award provides Ashley her with two years of support to pursue her research into how military to civilian transition works when it comes to the public health care system. Ashley is the seventh award winner and the third from Queen’s. Queen’s student Celina Shirazipour received the award in 2014, and Linna Tam-Seto, who received the award in 2016, is now a post-doctoral research fellow at Queen’s.

 “When you look back at the other six recipients, you get a chance to see how their research has had a real impact on people. It is amazing to be in such company. It reinvigorates your drive to do the work and helps you realize you have the capacity and that it’s possible to make a difference. That’s kinda cool” says Ashley.

Ashley has already begun to recruit participants for the first phase of her research, which will be in-depth interviews with a variety of recently released military Veterans – those with a range of release types, service elements, and ranks – about their transition from Canadian Forces Health Services. The goal is to gain a solid understanding of their experiences accessing the public health system. The second phase will focus on how team-based primary care is provided to Veterans.

Throughout her academic career, Ashley has continued to work part-time as an occupational therapist with two different Ontario family health teams. “It’s nice to have a clinical role to be helpful at a more direct level,” she remarks. “But research and creating new knowledge will help at a different level. It has a broader capacity for impact.”

I always enjoy sharing stories of students in the Faculty of Health Sciences who are putting our vision into action by Asking Questions, Seeking Answers, Advancing Care and Inspiring Change. Please join me in wishing Ashley continued success as she seeks answers to her important questions by commenting on the blog, or better yet, drop by the School of Rehabilitation Therapy to congratulate her yourself!

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