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Mapping the needs of veterans across the UK

High profile events such as the Invictus Games, together with campaigning by Prince Harry, highlight the needs of military veterans on an international and national scale. Indeed, the wellbeing of ex-servicemen and women in the UK has become a national focus in recent years, and the Armed Forces, NHS and charities are working hard to offer support to those who might benefit from it. But understanding where that support is needed at the regional level, and what services are available, has been a challenge – until now. A new UK-wide digital service directory is putting veteran’s health and social care needs on a map.  

Dr Matthew Kiernan is an Associate Professor in Mental Health and Veteran Studies in the Department of Nursing, Midwifery and Health. A former Lieutenant Commander in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service, he has a thorough understanding of the challenges experienced by Armed Forces personnel, their families, and the health and social care professionals offering them support. 

There are currently thought to be 2.75 million veterans living in the UK, and many – including their families – require support from a range of different services. To date, there has been little understanding of veterans’ specific regional needs, the social and health services available in those regions, and the numbers of ex-servicemen and women and family members who need access to those services.  

To address this gap, in March 2017, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) Covenant Grants Team commissioned Dr Kiernan and his team within The Northern Hub for Military Veterans and Families Research to produce a map of veterans’ and their families’ welfare needs across the whole of the UK. The research project, known as Map of Need, provides an important Public Health Observatory function, in that the MoD will be able to make informed funding decisions based on evidence and data. 

As part of the project, the research team, together with Northumbria University Newcastle and US partners Ripplenami Inc., have developed the UK’s first digital, UK-wide directory of services known as the Veterans Gateway Mobile Application and Local Support website (VG). The VG enables veterans and their families to identify appropriate service provision in their local area from a database of 16,800 quality-assured service delivery points. The VG app is incredibly easy to use, and can be downloaded to smart phones, tablets and computers. Since its launch in 2018, the number of searches on the VG has risen consistently to over 20,000 individual searches in 2020. 

From a research perspective, the VG provides a vital information-gathering function. Frontline health and social care staff using the app complete a simple registration process, which involves drop down menus and takes less than a minute to complete. The registration process asks for details such as the age of the client or patient, the first part of their postcode (e.g., SW1, NE7, L22), and the branch of service they are accessing, but does not ask for any information that could disclose the identity of each client or patient. 

By analysing this data, the research team are beginning to build a comprehensive picture of ex-service personnel needs. They are gaining a better understanding of where in the UK there is most need and will, over time, be able to tell whether veterans’ needs are increasing or decreasing. This information is now being used to inform service funding strategies and improve comprehension of user needs. 

The implications of the Map of Need are vast: at the regional level, specific resources and funding can be targeted to areas in most need; at the national level, 2.75 million veterans and their families can now easily access a database of the appropriate support services in their local area; and at the global level, the VG is a completely new concept, paving the way for mapping public health needs and services worldwide. 

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