ECU’s impact felt in improved integrated care model

Angela Lamson and Jennifer Hodgson began collaborating with Greene County Health Care nearly 20 years ago for an integrated care program to benefit patients in eastern North Carolina and provide valuable practical learning opportunities for their East Carolina University students. This began with one ECU medical family therapy student in 2006.

In the years since then, ECU’s partnership with Greene County Health Care focused on the delivery of behavioral and mental health services, in tandem with primary care visits, has flourished, including a recent high of 18 students across 12 sites.

Angela Lamson looks at a chart with Greene County Health Care Dr. Sampoorna Velineni, left, and medical assistant Anthony Smith

East Carolina University’s Angela Lamson looks at a chart with Greene County Health Care Dr. Sampoorna Velineni, left, and medical assistant Anthony Smith at the James D. Bernstein Community Health Center.

All of the students who provide services with Greene County Health Care are rigorously trained for their position, ready to meet a variety of acute and complex needs for patients. Collaboration is also reflected through Greene County Schools. During an appointment, a patient is informed about the integrated care model and asked if they would like immediate services or future services with a therapist on site.

Lamson said the students, in the College of Health and Human Performance based primarily in the Department of Human Development and Family Science and including the School of Social Work, have undoubtedly saved lives. Greene County Health Care CEO Melissa Torres has proof of ECU’s role in Greene County Health Care’s growth.

“For many years, ECU students were the only therapists providing mental health care in our clinics,” Torres said. “Over time, our partnership with ECU helped lay the groundwork for building our own behavioral health team. More therapists means more patients receive care.”

The first funding in 2006 came from the Kate B. Reynolds Foundation in partnership with Greene County Health Care. In 18 years, $4,105,762 has been secured and 154 students have received graduate assistantships to deliver integrated behavioral health care.

Greene County Health Care is celebrating 50 years this year and has five clinics offering medical, dental and mental health care covering a 17-county area.

Lamson, a Nancy W. Darden Distinguished Professor in HDFS and the university’s interim assistant vice chancellor for economic and community engagement, Torres and others have enjoyed seeing an uptick in the dental aspect and effectiveness in Greene and Pitt counties.

“One of our practice managers attributes the increase to three things: the students’ easy-going and approachable personalities, (Lamson’s) excellent rapport with our dental assistants and the students’ flexibility in approaching patients,” Torres said. “Our partnership with East Carolina University is a natural fit. East Carolina’s values are student-centered, inclusive and committed to service. Those values complement our mission and vision. Our mission is to provide compassionate, quality care, every day for all people. … The partnership gives ECU students an opportunity to learn about and serve their community as a whole, providing care to people who would otherwise not get the care they truly need.”

With mental health, Lamson said a major part of the development of student training focuses around an important question to patients — have you had thoughts of whether you would be better off dead?

“If you haven’t received training in how to ask that question and then what to do with the information, that can be really scary for the student and for the patient,” Lamson said. “What I have said time and again is I can promise you that our team is going to be ready to ask that question, and know what to do with the results. People need us to ask that question and many times, they want us to ask that question.”

National mental illness awareness week is Oct. 1-7. This year’s theme is “Together we care. Together we share.”

That is a fitting theme for what Lamson described as attempts locally to continue to reduce the stigma associated with discussing mental illness and suicidal thoughts.

“It needs to be a part of conversation, so we can really begin to make sure we are saving people’s lives,” Lamson said.

In 2005, ECU created the first doctoral program in the nation in medical family therapy. Many graduates have remained in eastern North Carolina for professional opportunities, which Torres said has helped patients of Greene County Health Care receive full care.

Alex Hernandez is a current ECU medical family therapy doctoral student who has embraced and benefited from his role with Greene County Health Care patients.

“Learning how the medical world works and how mental health is integrated into that world, this has been great and I’ve learned a lot, because it’s a huge learning curve,” Hernandez said. “It definitely prepares you. This is precisely what I want is doing therapy in the medical world, understanding that health is not just physical health or mental health. It is all of it together. That is what we practice and that is why we’re here.”

Seeing people collaborate and commit to this integrated care model has brought great pride to the co-creators of ECU’s medical family therapy doctoral program.

“The success of this collaboration and the integrated care services we have delivered across eastern North Carolina could not have been possible without the earliest vision and commitment of Dr. Jennifer Hodgson, and our partners, Dr. Tom Irons and Mr. Doug Smith, along with hundreds of devoted therapists, health coaches and our most current GCHC leadership,” Lamson said. “Most of all, this program could not have been possible without the patients who trusted our team for their care.”