How does health social work improve patient outcomes? Two out of three patients at UT Health Austin’s Musculoskeletal Institute report improvement in six months when social workers are integrated into teams to provide cognitive behavioral therapy.
AUSTIN, Texas – Mikaela Frissell, LCSW, a clinical social worker who is part of the care team at UT Health Austin’s Musculoskeletal Institute, was worried about one of her patients suffering from chronic pain. The patient was in so much distress that she couldn’t adequately care for herself or continue working her high-stress job.
Growing increasingly concerned that hospitalization would be needed, Frissell decided to try a novel therapeutic approach — pain reprocessing therapy. Rooted in neuroscience, pain reprocessing therapy is an evidence-based treatment for chronic pain that aims to rewire neural pathways in the brain to deactivate pain.
“There aren’t a lot of effective interventions for chronic pain,” says Frissell. “Pain reprocessing therapy integrates cognitive therapy and somatic exercises to help people retrain the brain so that they experience less pain.”
Offering support and care such as this biopsychosocial approach to pain is one of the vital services social workers like Frissell provide to patients as part of Dell Medical School’s Department of Health Social Work, the first department of its kind within a medical school. At UT Health Austin, Dell Med’s clinical practice, social workers are integral members of multidisciplinary health care teams like the one at the Musculoskeletal Institute, which also includes physicians, physical therapists, chiropractors and dietitians.
Led by Chair Barbara Jones, Ph.D., MSW, the department works to integrate social work into clinical care, but also into the medical school’s work spanning education, research and the “healthscape” (work done beyond the physical location of clinics and hospitals that improves and maintains the health of a person or population). Jointly operated by UT’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work and Dell Med, the Department of Health Social Work provides an academic home for the medical school’s social workers and other integrated behavioral health providers.
“Recognizing that as much as 80% of our health is determined by factors outside of medicine and medical settings, the skills provided by social workers are more important than ever to achieving better health outcomes for patients and their families,” said Jones, who is also the Josleen and Frances Lockhart Memorial Professor for Direct Practice and associate dean for health affairs at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.
Philanthropic Support Helps to Drive Innovation
Philanthropists John David and Leslie Moritz also understand the crucial role that social workers play in transforming our health care system, and their recent $1.2 million gift to The University of Texas at Austin will help to advance that work at both Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work.
As part of the gift, $700,000 will provide support for the Department of Health Social Work at Dell Med to recruit and support two clinical social workers for three years, as well as to establish a departmental fund.
Additionally, $500,000 will create the Moritz Family Scholarship for Social Work, an endowed fund at the Steve Hicks School. The Steve Hicks School will match this gift with $500,000 from their own endowment, creating a gift that is worth $1 million in scholarship funding and providing vital support for students who aspire to careers in social work and health care.
“I believe health care and social work go hand in hand,” said John David Moritz. “I chose to give to the Department of Health Social Work because of the partnership created between Dell Med and the Steve Hicks School. When my father was in hospice, I saw firsthand the importance of social work in the care he received. In fact, this is what my family remembers most about that time.” The Moritz family hopes that their gift will bring awareness to the essential connection between health care and social work.
“The Moritz Family Scholarship for Social Work will motivate and encourage students who have chosen to dedicate their careers to health social work,” said Allan Cole, Ph.D., dean of the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. “The Moritz family’s support will allow more social workers to contribute their expertise to health care teams and patient care.”
As for Frissell’s patient, after 12 sessions of pain reprocessing therapy she was able to return to work — no hospitalization required. From Frissell’s perspective, the therapy is more successful when social workers are fully integrated into the health care team, and when all members of the team — from physicians to physical therapists — understand the key role social workers play.
Karl Koenig, M.D., medical director of the Musculoskeletal Institute, is on board. “Our clinical outcomes in the Back and Neck Pain Center are some of the best I’ve ever seen — 65% of patients report improvement within six months. The combined approach that includes cognitive behavioral therapy and incorporating social workers in the coordination of follow-up care leads to massively improved outcomes,” he said.
And that’s evident to Frissell as well: “I’m able to truly partner with the physician to train patients in coping skills to turn down the nervous system response to stress and anxiety,” she said. “In the same way you might work with a physical therapist to train muscles, you can work with a behavioral therapist to ensure your pain is better controlled.”
Regarding Dell Med’s Department of Health Social Work and the future of interprofessional education and care, Jones is optimistic.
“This department is the first of its kind in a medical school, but we don’t want to be the last,” Jones says. “We want what we’ve done here to be an invitation to others across the country. I believe that interprofessional education and collaborative practice is the way of the future.”