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Study provides evidence UNC-PrimeCare program is succeeding

Lisa de Saxe Zerden, Ph.D.
Lisa de Saxe Zerden, Ph.D.

When the School of Social Work launched UNC-PrimeCare nearly eight years ago, the goal was to address the nation’s rapidly growing need for more behavioral healthcare workers within the integrated landscape of health care services. School leaders now have evidence that the federally funded program is meeting its intended purpose and perhaps more important, PrimeCare social work graduates are succeeding.

According to findings from a five-year study, PrimeCare graduates said they felt better prepared to work in health care environments, such as hospitals, health clinics and substance abuse treatment facilities, compared to students who graduated from the School of Social Work’s traditional MSW program without the integrated care training. The longitudinal study also found that PrimeCare graduates are having greater success securing jobs more quickly after graduation and are landing jobs with higher salaries, said Lisa de Saxe Zerden, associate professor, social work director for interprofessional education and practice and PrimeCare principal investigator.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Social Work Education, is believed to be the first to evaluate the long-term effectiveness of the government supported workforce training initiative over several cohorts. Zerden, alumnae Brianna M. Lombardi, Ph.D. ’18, and Ting Guan, Ph.D. ’22, research associate professor Steve Day, retired faculty member Anne Jones and PrimeCare program coordinator Meryl Kanfer co-authored the study.

“The biggest takeaway for me is that students from the PrimeCare program are using the skills that they have been trained for in the real world, which is what we want and what aligns with the intention of the federal funding to support this work,” Zerden said.

History of UNC-PrimeCare

UNC-PrimeCare is one of several integrated health care programs at universities across the state and nation that were originally funded through the federal Behavioral Health Workforce Education and Training grant. Each program operates differently but all offer stipends to enrolled students to support their education. All total, UNC School of Social Work has received nearly $4.7 million in grants and supported the education of nearly 320 students since the program launched in 2014. Another 80 or so students are expected to graduate from the program over the next three years.

As trainees, PrimeCare students gain experience working as members of a health care team in hospitals, clinics, family practitioners’ offices and within other integrated health care settings to ensure that a patient’s physical and mental health needs are addressed. For MSW students in particular, this experience may involve working closely with nurses to help resolve food insecurity issues in a patient’s home, finding transportation options to ensure a patient can travel to medical appointments or treating behavioral health conditions or substance use disorders through brief treatment interventions.

Although UNC’s program initially targeted MSW students only, the School expanded its reach in subsequent years to other students across campus, including from the schools of medicine, nursing, allied health sciences, and to students in the School of Education. In the program’s first year, students were trained to work specifically with adolescents and emerging adults. With additional grant funding, PrimeCare has provided students with essential specialized skills for treating people with opioid and other substance use disorders as well as training in trauma-informed behavioral health services for treating children, youth, and families in high-need areas.

“All along, PrimeCare has been training students to have the necessary skills to address the health care needs of the population,” Kanfer said. “Given the ongoing challenges related to the pandemic, the current grant, with its focus on the mental health needs of children, youth and their families couldn’t be more timely.”

PrimeCare graduates find jobs quickly, earn higher salaries

Christian Cagle, MSW '22
Christian Cagle, MSW ’22

Over the last few years, many of the School’s PrimeCare graduates have gotten jobs working in hospital settings at UNC and Duke, within UNC Family Medicine, local-area federally qualified  health centers, as well as within specialty focused substance abuse programs, including outpatient and residential facilities throughout the state.

In many instances, PrimeCare graduates are earning as much as $10,000 more yearly than their MSW peers who graduated from the traditional program. According to the School’s study, about 56% of students who graduated from the PrimeCare program reported earning annual salaries between $40,000 and $50,000, compared to 40% of traditional MSW students. Nearly 17% of PrimeCare graduates said they were earning between $50,000 and $60,000 annually, compared to about 9% of students who had graduated from the regular MSW program.

“In all fairness, hospital health related jobs do tend to pay better than other social work sectors, but we still didn’t expect to see such a trend over the full five years,” Zerden said.

Most of the PrimeCare graduates also reported finding jobs within a few months after graduation. About 2% of these graduates reported that they were unemployed 10 months after graduation, versus 12% of the general sample. Such a difference may be attributable, in part, to the nation’s growing crisis around behavioral and mental health issues, Zerden added.

“Given the mental health issues that are skyrocketing among many of our youth and given the increasing episodes of violence that are happening in a post-COVID world, it’s understandable that there is a great demand for behavioral health care workers,” Zerden said. “I know our program is having a positive impact on meeting this demand.”

Recent social work graduate Christian Cagle is among those who credits the PrimeCare program for preparing him for his current role within a private mental health practice in Charlotte. Cagle thinks his previous internship at Cone Community Health in Greenboro helped him land his new job weeks before graduation. In Greensboro, Cagle worked closely with doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others to treat patients with chronic physical and mental health issues, including clients experiencing homelessness.

Although his new job in Charlotte is not positioned within an integrated health environment, Cagle said he still works as a member of a team that collaborates on cases and research involving populations and issues that he might not otherwise have the opportunity to engage with. He remains thankful for the lessons he learned as a PrimeCare student.

“This program really prepares you to work with different populations,” he said. “It prepares you for understanding a broad spectrum of concerns and problems in mental and physical health that people face on a regular basis, and you get to work with different disciplines. Even if you have no plans to work in an integrated health care system, I can say that working with doctors, nurses, pharmacists and physical therapists within a team made me a better social worker. It better prepared me for dealing with high stress environments and for feeling really supported in my role.”