Veterans association compiles medical records database

The Milwaukee Veteran’s Association Hospital is boosting participation in the Million Veteran Program, a nationwide effort to collect blood samples and medical records from over a million veterans to create a comprehensive medical database.

The program, which started last October, is aimed at helping researchers make connections between various symptoms and their possible causes. The Milwaukee VA hospital is one of 40 sites across the country participating in the program, though the Milwaukee site has been more active than the program nationally, according to Jeffery Whittle, head of the program in Milwaukee.

“Nationwide, (the program heads) are a little disappointed in terms of how they enrolled folks,” Whittle said. “Milwaukee has been outstanding, though.”

Whittle said enrollment started off slowly on Oct. 26, and has been gradually picking up since.

“Since January we have been enrolling between 50 to 100 per week,” Whittle said. “Now we are reliably hitting 80 a week.”

William Cullinan, dean of the College of Health Sciences, said the program could be very important in discovering how a particular environment can have certain health effects, in this case on veterans.

“(The Million Veteran Program) looks to be an important undertaking,” Cullinan said. “While it is occasionally the case that a single defective gene is responsible for a particular disease state, in most cases the relationships between gene states and health are far more complex and dependent on interactions with environment.”

Ailments the program hopes to address include diabetes, heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Whittle said veterans may be a more willing sample for a large database than other groups, possibly because their health problems have more complex causes.

“(Veterans) are more willing to do this than the general population,” Whittle said. “Veterans have some issues that may not be well-addressed.”

Cheryl Shefchik, a recruiting operations officer in the Department of Military Science and Leadership at Marquette and an Iraq War veteran, said exposure to environmental factors while overseas has affected veterans in the past, including herself.

“What I see in older soldiers that I work with and veterans with the first Gulf War is a lot of effects of things they were exposed to, such as chemical attacks,” Shefchik said. “More recent issues would be exposure to burning trash, burning feces, human remains and a lot of dust and sand. I have a lot of sinus issues since I returned from Iraq that I did not (have in the past).”

Shefchik said the Million Veteran Program will help find solutions to many of these ailments.

“Getting a lot of data, a lot of analysis and being able to see patterns can really have a substantial effect,” Shefchik said. “The Million Veteran Program is doing that.”

The Veterans Association plans to continue to enrolling veterans for the next five to seven years. Whittle said the program should reach the one million mark around 2018.