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KU lands grant to boost integrated health workforce throughout state, treating physical, behavioral health

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

LAWRENCE — It is estimated that about 70 to 75 percent of primary care visits involve a behavioral health issue such as depression or anxiety, substance use, stress or coping with a chronic health condition. Physicians and other primary care providers often lack the time or expertise to address these concerns despite their potential effect on health outcomes. Integrated health is a growing approach that uses an interprofessional team to provide coordinated, patient-centered physical and behavioral health care. The University of Kansas School of Social Welfare has secured a grant to expand the behavioral health workforce in integrated health care.

As part of a four-year, $1.85 million award from the Health Resources & Services Administration, KU’s social welfare school is launching the Integrated Health Scholars Program. Through the program, principal investigators Michelle Levy and Jason Matejkowski, along with evaluator Cheryl Holmes, will partner with KU Medical Center, the School of Pharmacy and other key stakeholders across the state to increase the number of social workers who are prepared to offer behavioral health care as part of an interprofessional team in an integrated care setting.

Integrated health care utilizes a team of behavioral health and primary care clinicians who work with individuals and families to address mental health, substance use, health behaviors, life stressors and chronic conditions. Research demonstrates that integrated care is linked to better outcomes, increased patient and provider satisfaction, and decreased health care costs.

Integrated care is a promising model for increasing identification and intervention with individuals with mental health and substance use conditions and addressing chronic physical health conditions that often co-exist with behavioral health. Data estimates show that one in five American adults has a mental health condition in their lifetime. Yet only about half of these individuals receive care. The numbers are even more striking for individuals with substance use disorder, where only about one-tenth receive treatment. Barriers such as transportation, stigma and costs of care that can contribute to these disparities lessen with an integrated approach.

Recent legislation at the national level, including the Affordable Care Act, has increased the number of people who have insurance that covers behavioral health treatment. An aging population is also increasing demand for health services.

“The workforce that is required to meet this demand too often just isn’t there,” said Matejkowski, assistant professor of social welfare. “Especially in many rural communities.”

KU’s Integrated Health Scholars Program will help address that shortage by supporting social work students across the state. The program provides scholarships for 28 master’s-level social work students per year. Students may attend any of the social welfare school's campuses, including western Kansas — at Garden City Community College and Fort Hays State University — and the Lawrence and Edwards Campus.

“What we’ve found typically works best in rural workforce development is a grow-your-own approach,” said Levy, research associate in the social welfare school. “We’re recruiting statewide for students and field agencies and giving priority to those in our rural communities.”

The program will also enhance students’ education by providing experiential learning in integrated field practicum settings in clinics, hospitals and mental health centers. Scholars will partner with KU nursing and medical students to participate in team-based care. By working together to understand one another’s fields before entering the workforce, the students will be more effective in implementing integrated health care as professionals, the researchers said.

“We’re trying to be more purposeful in developing those connections and preparing students from different health professions to work together,” Levy said.

The program will also support educators by implementing professional development in interprofessional education for faculty and field instructors. It will also focus on preparing students to seek positions in integrated health and supporting retention in the behavioral health workforce.

“There is a shortage of licensed social workers to fill open positions in behavioral health, especially in the rural areas of our state. Of the approximately 4,700 social workers in Kansas with the credentials to become clinicians, administrators or supervisors, around four percent are in western Kansas,” said Michelle Mohr Carney, dean of the School of Social Welfare. “This program not only provides the opportunity for us to aid the state in filling these extremely important positions with qualified social workers, but it also provides our students the opportunity of receiving real-world interprofessional experiences without the burden of student loans. We are extremely excited to have received this award, which will help fund 112 students.”

Top photo: The Flint Hills region. Photo by Edwin Olson.

Photos from top right: Michelle Levy, Jason Matejkowski and Cheryl Holmes.

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