Forging Community Partnerships to Improve Integrated Health

03/11/2015 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

Each March, the nation celebrates Social Work Month fueled by the hope, resilience and advocacy from thousands of social workers around the country. I want to recognize and thank the social workers who dedicate their lives to improving social conditions and quality of life opportunities for all. Social workers in communities across the nation are critical in raising awareness about family needs and social injustice. For these reasons, they should be on the forefront of the development and execution of innovative treatment models.

The Affordable Care Act has encouraged bold new partnerships in health care delivery that integrate behavioral health with medical services. And with the integrated, inter-professional healthcare field in its infancy, there is a growing need for skilled practitioners who can evaluate the psychosocial functioning of patients and families; help them advocate for the most appropriate care, and intervene as necessary. Treating patients with medical and behavioral issues can substantially improve outcomes and experience of care.

Social workers are trained to assess using a psycho-social-bio perspective that understands the impact of the environment on an individual's well-being. And with the growing need for social workers in integrated healthcare roles and the rapid advances in medical technology and treatment, the demands on social workers are greater than ever before. It is time for social workers to embrace these challenges and the new opportunities for innovation, collaboration and dialogue that come with it.

As a longtime public health advocate, I am committing Wheelock College to preparing our students for this exciting field and to be the leaders for this profession. The value of social workers is great; they are the ones who can connect patients and families to necessary resources and supports; provide psychotherapy, supportive counseling, or grief counseling; or help patients expand and strengthen their network of social supports. About one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year and in low income, uninsured and minority populations, this statistic is compounded.

In thinking about integrated health needs close to Wheelock's Boston campus, the College saw a great opportunity to lead a pioneering partnership in Mattapan, a community just six miles away from Wheelock. After assessment, discussion and work within the community, it was evident that Mattapan lacked easily accessible behavioral health services within the neighborhood. Mental health issues like depression and substance abuse have grown and the increases in homelessness and a poor economy have exacerbated the need for these services. From our work within the Mattahunt Elementary School, we found out that the absence of mental health providers has resulted in disruptive student behavior that makes effective change challenging to achieve.

As a result of its work at the Mattahunt Community Center, Wheelock is facilitating the development of a partnership that brings together our college, a community health center, two elementary schools, and a community center to reach out and serve an under-resourced community. The partners committed to tackling this community challenge by adopting an innovative model on the cutting edge of integrated medical care, which will reduce fragmentation of care and attend to the needs of the whole patient. In late 2014, the Mattapan Community Health Center (MCHC) opened its first Behavioral Health Unit, staffed by a full-time licensed independent clinical social worker. The Unit is now working to implement "warm hand offs" and conducting community outreach to parents and teachers at the community-based partnership sites, providing community education about behavioral health.

This partnership model is an exciting new approach that addresses healthcare not as an individual's appointment with a doctor, but as an engaged community of providers and members working together. Jointly these institutions are improving recognition, treatment, and management of psychosocial problems and coordination of care across primary care and specialty area teams at the MCHC. Students in the Wheelock College undergraduate and graduate schools of social work, located at various partnership sites, have many opportunities to develop integrated, inter-professional healthcare skills due to the partnership, which is made possible through funding from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation, and a Federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

More research, discussion and dialogue are needed on how to better integrate healthcare delivery across professions. This May 2015, Wheelock's Social Work department will convene a cadre of interdisciplinary experts and practitioners to further explore this topic at a full day conference "Current Realities and Future Vision: Developing an Inter-Professional, Integrated Healthcare Workforce." Social workers, educators, administrators, and medical practitioners will have opportunities to share effective models currently used in Massachusetts and to identify future partnerships and resources.

Social workers are in a unique position to be the hub of an integrated, inter-professional model of healthcare delivery. The more policymakers and practitioners can work together in integrated behavioral healthcare, the better the chances of making it the standard of care. It is my hope that social workers will welcome opportunities for coordination and leadership in this burgeoning field.

I hope you will take a few moments this month to recognize the commitment of those who take on the worthy occupation of social work and their tremendous contributions that too often go unacknowledged. I want to especially thank Wheelock Professor Deborah Lisansky Beck for her commitment and passion to teaching and social work. This month, the National Association of Social Workers, Massachusetts Chapter will honor Professor Beck with the "Greatest Contribution to Social Work Education" award that honors outstanding contributions to social work education. Professor Beck's dedication to teaching and mentoring, to Wheelock's mission of improving the lives of children and families, and to human rights and social justice-centered education and practice truly make her an exceptional educator, mentor, and colleague.