Feature

East Tennesseans will soon reap the benefits of one more mental health professional dedicated to community health care, as well as expanded behavioral health-care services. Thanks to a $70,000 Graduate Psychology Education (GPE) grant, Cherokee Health Systems (CHS) will increase its APA-accredited internship training class from three to four interns and continue innovative programs such as Diabetes Day, which improves diabetes care for inner-city patients.

It's a win-win situation for all, says Nina Levitt, EdD, associate executive director for the APA Education Government Relations Office, who notes that the new internship slot comes at a time when demand for psychology internships outstrips supply.

What's more, CHS is a model of successful integrated community health care and a place where the Education Directorate's recent initiatives are actively practiced, she adds.

"We have wanted for a number of years to get psychologists hired by these community health-care facilities and also to open up internship slots in these underserved communities," Levitt says.

APA's Education Directorate staff successfully advocated in 2002 to establish the GPE grants, and GPE is the only federal program solely dedicated to educating psychologists. In 2007, the GPE program awarded $1.8 million in 18 three-year grants to institutions committed to working with populations in medically underserved areas.

CHS operates 23 locations in 13 counties in Eastern Tennessee and is a federally qualified health-care system that sees patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay. It also partners with the Knox County Health Department to provide primary care to Knoxville's homeless and indigent population.

It's in communities such as this--where residents have a high incidence of chronic health problems such as hypertension and diabetes--that psychologists are so useful, says Parinda Khatri, PhD, CHS's director of internship training and director of integrated care.

"Our first line of defense is behavioral intervention," she says.

The CHS internship trains students in integrated care, an expanding practice area for psychologists. Interns work side by side with physicians and nurses to provide behavioral health interventions during primary-care medical visits, teaching patients skills to prevent or manage their health problems.

In addition to funding a new intern, the grant will support several innovative programs at CHS including a kindergarten-readiness group, in which children and their families meet with a pediatrician and a behavioral health-care specialist to assess the children and answer parents' common developmental questions. Not only do the families enjoy the group environment, but the system also alleviates the regional backlog of children needing a physician's check up before enrolling in school.

Further, CHS found when children see a psychologist in primary care, they reduce their medical visits by 37 percent.

CHS also strives to integrate other specialists into primary care. They've collaborated with a sleep specialist, for example, to develop a sleep protocol that psychologists can teach patients in the primary-care setting. CHS interns will also lead chronic pain and healthy lifestyles groups, where Khatri hopes to teach patients coping skills and preventative care.

"We're able to manage 80 percent of behavioral and mental health issues in primary care," she says.