Health care clinics, patients, graduate students benefit from UNC-PrimeCare graduate student training

Graduate students are bringing new approaches and interactions with patients to primary care or health clinics thanks to an innovative University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill program.

Lisa Zerden

Lisa Zerden

Behavioral health encompasses both mental health and substance use care, according to Lisa de Saxe Zerden, Ph.D. Zerden is the senior associate dean for master of social work (MSW) education and the principal investigator for UNC-PrimeCare, a project to expand the social work behavioral health workforce in primary care settings.

In today’s health care system, physical health and behavioral health are traditionally siloed, Zerden explained. The PrimeCare students are assessing clients for mental health status and screening for problematic substance use, food insecurity and other social factors that impact health, she said.

In 2014, the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Social Work received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration. The school used the grant to create UNC-PrimeCare, which provides funding for MSW students to work in integrated behavioral health care settings. Students also take a short course on integrated behavioral health as a part of their training.

“The goal with this grant is to train students in this setting and prepare them for jobs in integrated primary health care,” Zerden said.

Since 2011, The Graduate School has asked all graduating master’s and doctoral students to provide feedback on the quality of their educational experiences at UNC-Chapel Hill. One hundred percent of all responding master’s degree students in the social sciences have described their opportunities to develop practice skills to be very good. UNC-PrimeCare exemplifies this type of training, said Steve Matson, dean of The Graduate School.

Kathryn Falbo-Woodson

Kathryn Falbo-Woodson

Kathryn Falbo-Woodson participated in the UNC-PrimeCare program during the 2015-16 academic year before she graduated in May 2016. She worked at Carolinas HealthCare System-Elizabeth Family Medicine in Charlotte during the program.

During her placement through the academic year, she interacted with more than 130 patients in brief consultations.

Falbo-Woodson provided ongoing psychotherapy to some of those patients, collaborating with the patients’ medical teams and informing providers about their patients’ progress or barriers to treatment.

“At the end of my placement, patients reported a reduction of symptoms (related to depression and anxiety) by 41 percent,” she said.

Now, Falbo-Woodson works as an oncology clinical social worker at Carolinas HealthCare System-Levine Cancer Institute.

UNC-PrimeCare is unique because students are specifically placed in integrated behavioral health settings, Zerden said. Students work with nurse practitioners, doctors and other medical providers on a team. 

Students work three days a week for a full academic year for their placement and attend monthly seminars, Zerden said.

Jamie Burgess-Flowers

Jamie Burgess-Flowers

Jamie Burgess-Flowers also participated in the program during the 2015-16 school year. She was placed at Prospect Hill Community Health Center.  Now she works as a behavioral health integration project manager at Community Care of North Carolina in Raleigh.

“Having that full year of experience working clinically within a community health clinic gives me the perspective that I need to help inform my practice as a project manager,” she said.

Burgess-Flowers said she was able to teach others at the clinic about integrated care. “I think that the most important piece of being a social worker in an integrated setting is your influence on the way your interprofessional colleagues see their social work peers,” she said.

Anne Jones, Ph.D., a clinical professor, is the co-investigator on the project and Meryl Kanfer, LCSW, coordinates the program and teaches a class in the summer and fall about integrated care.

Meryl Kanfer

Meryl Kanfer

“I call them seed planters,” Kanfer said of the students. “They’re really teaching providers about the benefits of having somebody on site available to do brief assessment and brief treatment.”

So far, 60 students have participated in the program, and the school hopes to have 93 students participate by the time the grant ends in 2018, Zerden said. Students receive a $10,000 stipend when they participate in the program.

Students have had a positive effect on the clinics in which they work, and some agencies have offered jobs to our graduating students and other social workers because they’ve seen the benefits of having an MSW in the clinic, Zerden noted. Ultimately, it’s about the patient, she said.

“It’s a win for the students who get to be a part of a changing health care context and they get to be on the ground when they’re seeing preventive health care being funded. They get to see what it’s like to work on health care teams.

“It’s just a win-win-win for everyone,” Zerden said.