Psychology doctoral students at Virginia Commonwealth University are part of a forward-looking practicum program where they’re learning how to navigate the fast-paced world of primary care and work with patients with high levels of medical and mental health needs.

It’s an important setting for training, says program developer Bruce Rybarczyk, PhD, because there’s a growing need for primary-care psychologists, but few programs at the pre-internship level to address that need. Instead, health psychology students tend to be trained on the inpatient, specialty side, he says.

“Yet primary care is really ground zero for the mind-body issues that psychologists have learned to address so effectively,” such as helping people quit smoking, reduce chronic pain and overcome insomnia, he says. “At the same time, it serves as the first place consumers go to seek help for traditional mental health concerns.”

The practicum — one of an estimated 10 in the country besides those connected to the Department of Veterans Affairs — is housed in an outpatient primary care clinic for the uninsured and underinsured at the VCU Medical Center. There, the psychology students work with physicians, pharmacists and medical residents to treat people with high rates of disability, unemployment and the stresses of living in troubled, low-resource communities.

The program is in its second year, thanks to a three-year, $390,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Graduate Professional Education (GPE) training program, and a $54,000 grant from the Virginia Health Care Foundation. Both are renewable if Rybarczyk can show they meet the organizations’ clinical service and training goals. The GPE program, which APA helped develop, offers funding to prepare health-service psychologists to work on interdisciplinary teams that treat the underserved.

With the current funding, Rybarczyk plans to train at least 45 graduate students in the basics of primary-care psychology, and another 10 students will receive advanced training in area.

VCU doctoral candidate Daniel Baughn, who took the training last year, says he relished the opportunity to see a wide variety of patients and conditions, to work with stimulating colleagues from other disciplines and to make a difference using psychological techniques.

Seeing the level of need, he’s also certain the field will only continue to grow.

“If psychologists want to have a voice in shaping the health care of America,” he says, “this is the place to do it.”

—T. DeAngelis