Education Leadership Conference
Given the role of behavior in health, psychology as a discipline and profession is key to reforming the health-care delivery system. That was the message of APA's Executive Director for Education Cynthia Belar, PhD, kicking off APA's 2009 Education Leadership Conference.
The annual meeting, during which psychologists visit policymakers on Capitol Hill, focused this year on preparing psychologists and other members of the health work force to work together in health-care settings that integrate psychological and physical care and thus improve patient care.
Traditionally, said Belar, psychologists have focused on a narrow aspect of health—the treatment of mental disorders. But, she said, psychology can contribute much more. Psychologists have important roles to play in addressing diabetes, heart disease and other physical disorders, as well as in prevention and health promotion efforts. Fulfilling that potential will require revamping the training of psychologists and other health professionals.
The good news is that psychologists are now involved in training the full range of health professionals, including physicians, physician assistants, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, public health personnel, occupational therapists and hospital administrators. "Psychological knowledge has now been codified in the accreditation process of a number of health professions," Belar said.
Undergraduate faculty in particular will play a significant role in promoting "psychological literacy" among these and other health professionals, she said.
Meanwhile, psychologists' training also needs to change if the discipline is to fulfill its potential in the health-care arena, said Belar. In the research realm, she said, psychology must train researchers who can address such crucial health-care issues as prevention and treatment of physical and mental disorders, clinical decision-making, adherence to treatment regimens, safety in health care and health disparities.
Psychological researchers must also develop skills in working with other disciplines, she said. "A silo approach to research training will not meet future needs," she emphasized, explaining that health-care settings that integrate psychological and physical care are becoming the norm.
Graduate programs that are housed in or affiliated with academic health settings are perhaps best suited for such training, she said.
Training for psychologists who provide health services must also change, said Belar. Practitioners need more education in the biological, cognitive-affective, social and psychological bases of health and disease, for example.
"While some might argue that psychology's curriculum is getting too 'medicalized,' let me point out that other health professions are actively seeking to 'psychosocialize' their curricula—and doing so with the help of many psychologists," she said.
Psychologists practicing in health-care settings also need more training in health policy and the practical aspects of working in such settings, such as coding, legal issues and referral and consultation strategies.
Certain trends, such as the growing emphasis on primary care, are accelerating the need for more interdisciplinary training, said Belar. "Primary care is the de facto mental health system in the United States," she said. And that's not likely to change, she said, predicting that the federally qualified community health system will gain even more prominence with health-care reform. That's an opportunity for psychologists, since fewer than 500 psychologists currently work in the system's 7,146 sites.
To better position the discipline for the future, said Belar, psychologists need to show that they are more than mental health service providers.
"We need a broader definition that can be directly linked to the education and training [we receive] if we are to maximize our potential," she concluded.
Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.