WASHINGTON — Military doctors need to do a better job not only identifying brain injuries among returning combat veterans but also planning for long-term treatment for those problems, neuroscience experts told Congress on Wednesday.

“We need to start treating these brain injuries like we treat diseases,” said Dr. Ross Zafonte, chair of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Rehabilitation. “The recovery process for this is lengthy, and a mild injury does not always stay a mild injury.”

Zafonte was one of a panel of mental health experts testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on shortfalls in treatment of traumatic brain injuries in the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.

They said health care workers in both systems have done a better job recognizing even mild brain injuries and in delivering immediate rehabilitation, but after the initial push the number of programs available for patients and families often wanes.

Dr. Ronald Ruff, a board member of the National Academy of Neuropsychology, said that as a result family members are often the ones left to deal with those long-term recovery efforts, and they aren’t well-trained to deal with the physical and emotional issues those patients face.

“So, once patients are discharged, things start to fall apart,” he said.

The panel members said they are optimistic about the prognosis for many of the head injuries they see among troops returning from Iraq, noting that new combinations of medicine and therapies have shown great advances over just the last few years.

But they warned that delays or interruptions in treatments can lead to long-term setbacks, and urged Congress to push military and VA staff to establish better systems for quick, continuous care.

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