With much of the nation’s healthcare system fragmented and uncoordinated, patients are often left struggling to receive optimum care. Interprofessional education, an emerging field of teaching and research involving social work and other academic disciplines, is addressing the need for coordinated healthcare by developing teamwork models for health practitioners that will provide optimal, safe, and patient-centered care.
At the University of Texas at Austin, Barbara Jones has been working to incorporate interprofessional education and practice in the curriculum of health-related schools and colleges across campus.
Jones, a psychosocial oncology researcher and assistant dean for health affairs at the School of Social Work, is a leader in the development of an Interprofessional Education collaborative (IPE) in Austin that brings together faculty and graduate students in social work, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, and psychology. She also serves in the IPE Curriculum Subcommittee of the new Dell Medical School at UT Austin, which is set to start classes in 2016.
“Traditional medical education has not prepared doctors and other healthcare professionals to develop many of the skills that are essential for care, although fortunately this is changing as the value of communication, humility and empathy is better understood,” says Jones. “Providing high-quality healthcare requires an interprofessional team that can address the myriad physical, psychosocial, and spiritual needs of the patient and the family.”
Interprofessional courses at UT Austin
In the IPE courses that Jones teaches, graduate students from UT Austin, The University of Texas Medical Branch, and UT Southwestern are placed in interprofessional teams based upon their areas of interest to work on projects designed to teach communication, ethics, collaboration, and teamwork in healthcare practice settings.
In Fall 2012, Jones and Dr. John Luk, assistant dean for regional medical education at The University of Texas Medical Branch, co-created the first IPE graduate elective for medicine and social work. Their course, “Transformative teams in health care: Dialogues in interprofessional practice,” has since expanded to include nursing, educational psychology and pharmacy students.
Jones also designed and teaches “Interdisciplinary seminar in psychosocial oncology practice and research.” One of the first academic course of its kind in the United States, this seminar prepares graduate students in social work, nursing, medicine, psychology, public health, health kinesiology, human ecology, nutrition and pharmacy to provide clinical services and conduct research in psychosocial oncology—the care of people with cancer, including assessment, integrated behavioral health counseling and support of patients and their families during treatment and beyond.
“We have to instruct medical, nursing, social work, pharmacy students and others in interprofessional practice before they become professionals in their own disciplines,” Jones says. “They need to learn about their own and other professions’ scope of practice, principles, ethics, and values so that when they begin their careers, the doors to interprofessional collaboration are already open.”
The value of interprofessional collaboration: Caring for children with cancer
Jones learned the value of interprofessional collaboration early in her career, when she was a pediatric oncology social worker at Albany Medical Center in New York. At this hospital, she worked alongside doctors and nurses to provide care for children with cancer and their families.
“When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family is diagnosed with cancer,” Jones explains. “Social workers are engaging right away with the child and the family, and helping the medical team understand family dynamics, and what the illness means for this particular family within their larger social and cultural context. That’s why practitioners in this field had to develop models of interprofessional collaboration early on.”
As a member of the pediatric oncology team at Albany Medical Center, Jones worked with the children and family from the moment of diagnosis and through treatment and post-treatment. Her clinical work involved providing emotional support and assistance in decision-making, family conferencing, anticipatory guidance and evidence-based interventions for families facing life-threatening illness. The goals were to understand the illness’s manifestation and meaning for that particular child and family, and to find the best resources they could use to cope with it. As the social worker on an interprofessional team, Jones supported the patient and family, facilitated patient-centered decision-making, and advocated for families to make sure that their unique cultural and contextual values and perspectives were respected.
Pediatric oncology frequently poses difficult dilemmas. Children cannot legally consent to their own treatment, and therefore parents are the legal decision makers. Yet, children and adolescents have rights to understand what is happening to their bodies and to be integrally involved in decision-making. One of the roles for social workers is to facilitate this communication within the family and with the interprofessional team.
“Cancer affects everyone in some fashion, whether it be someone’s mother, father, child, partner or friend,” says School of Social Work alumna Kathryn Burgin, and a former student in the psychosocial oncology course. “Social workers should understand the implications of the disease. And in turn, social workers help other health professionals understand the importance of focusing on the patient’s life outside of the medical setting.”
From psychosocial oncology to interprofessional education
Today, as a School of Social Work researcher and teacher, Jones works to improve the care of pediatric and young adult oncology patients, including better understanding the long-term needs of children and adults who survive. She recently received the 2014 Outstanding Education and Training Award from the American Psychosocial Oncology Society for her work in ExCEL, a federally funded grant designed to train over 500 oncology social workers in evidence-based and patient-centered care.
“My passion is psychosocial oncology, and over the years this passion has pushed me to take leadership in advocating for interprofessional education,” Jones says. “The delivery of good oncology care, and of any integrated health care for that matter, is all about teamwork. We have to get better at teaching this essential aspect to students in all of the health-related disciplines.”
As an interprofessional educator, Jones is also passionate about the role of social workers.
“I teach my social work students: If you want to be a valued member of the team, then be of value,” she says. “Assert your skills and competencies as a social worker, and demonstrate that these skills and competencies are essential to the team’s efforts. And always keep the patient and family at the center of care.”