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UNC-PrimeCare enhances focus on youth with disabilities

North Carolina has some of the nation’s highest rates of behavioral health problems and a shortage of adequately trained health professionals to address these issues. Furthermore, youth, ages 10 to 25, are least likely to receive behavioral health treatment. However, thanks to a year-long grant, MSW students enrolled in the School of Social Work’s UNC-PrimeCare program will be better equipped to address the needs of this population.

The School’s Family Support Program was awarded the nearly $37,000 grant last year from the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Innovation Fund. The money was used to infuse additional content on co-occurring developmental disabilities and behavioral health into the curriculum of the PrimeCare initiative– a program that rigorously prepares MSW students to work in primary care settings as behavioral and mental healthcare specialists.

Embedding such specialists in primary care clinics and practices not only helps to break stigmas and barriers associated with mental healthcare, but also enables patients to access vital services in one setting. This need is especially acute among families with transitional age youth with developmental disabilities, said Tamara Norris, clinical associate professor and director of the Family Support Program.

“About a third of these youth also have behavioral health issues,” she explained. “So the AHEC Innovations grant helped us to add an educational component to our UNC-Prime Care program specifically to address these issues. Because so few professionals are trained to recognize this dual diagnosis, our MSW students will now be better prepared to improve practice in this area.”

The grant funding also enabled UNC-PrimeCare, which is led by social work faculty Lisa Zerden and Anne Jones, to accomplish the following:

  • Increase awareness among social workers and other professionals working with interprofessional teams and in integrated healthcare settings of overall issues related to diagnosis, treatment, and support of transitional age youth and young adults with developmental disabilities.
  • Develop and present a seminar that infused developmental disabilities and developmental disabilities/behavioral health content into social work education and training for students and practitioners. Among other goals, this seminar focused on principles of family- and person-centered practice, strategies for building collaborative partnerships between caregivers and providers, and the role of family members and providers in promoting self-advocacy and independence.
  • Engage with health and behavioral health professionals in the community, including social workers, psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, nutritionists, physicians, nurses, and field instructors working in primary care settings. These professionals participated in discussions around issues related to developmental disabilities/behavioral health diagnosis, treatment and support, and issues related to working on interprofessional teams and in integrated healthcare settings.

The grant was also used to develop an innovative training video entitled, “Behind the Scenes of Integrated Care: The Case of Willow McDonald,Norris said. The video uses a Standardized Patient Model (SP) simulation to highlight the critical knowledge and skills needed to provide interprofessional, integrated healthcare in primary care settings for transitional age youth and young adults with developmental disabilities. The simulation uses individuals trained to portray the roles of patients, family members and others (known as SPs) as an effective strategy to develop or enhance the skills in decision-making, clinical reasoning, and interpersonal communication. This simulation video also addressed people-first language, family- and person-centered practice, self-determination, transition planning, and interprofessional teamwork.

The Family Support Program partnered with UNC PrimeCare project staff; UNC School of Social Work AHEC Liaison Sherry Mergner; and the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities LEND staff to develop the video content. The video featured SPs from UNC Medical School’s Clinical Skills and Patient Simulation Center, which also provided the location, video equipment and staff to film and edit the training video.

The video was eventually piloted at UNC PrimeCare’s Interprofessional Educational (IPE) Conference on April 8 at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. This one-day conference was developed for PrimeCare MSW students and their field instructors as well as others in the health and behavioral health professions, including social workers, psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, nutritionists, physicians, and nurses.

“At the conference, students definitely experienced the value of conferring with colleagues from other disciplines in interprofessional clinical settings, while also learning about co-occurring developmental disability/behavioral health diagnoses,” Norris added. “Because this training was so successful, our goal is to continue to offer it through our AHECs.”