ETSU professors receive grant to accelerate region’s behavioral health workforce

Published 3:55 pm Wednesday, June 23, 2021

JOHNSON CITY – Two faculty members at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine received a grant to develop, implement and evaluate a program for training and retaining a behavioral health workforce in Northeast Tennessee.

Dr. Jodi Polaha, project director, and Dr. Matthew Tolliver, co-director, were awarded $1,855,118 from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for their project titled “Integrated Care Appalachia: A Model Training Program to Accelerate the Behavioral Health Workforce in Northeast Tennessee.”

 “We have a profound workforce need in this region across the gamut of mental health providers,” said Tolliver, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics. “This grant is designed to create a pipeline that takes people who are at the end of their graduate training programs; provides a final year of training in primary care with exposure to telehealth, children and youth, and other specialized topics; and then lands them a permanent position, hopefully here in our region.”

“Integrated Care Appalachia” will work with students in three graduate training programs at ETSU: the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program, the Master of Social Work program and the M.S.N. Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner concentration. Students in these programs will be integrated into eight ETSU Health primary care clinics, and eventually, five expansion sites in the most high-need, high-demand areas.

The trainees will work and learn in an evidence-based model of integrated care, which is a collaboration between health professionals to provide complete treatment to patients and improve overall well-being. Integrated care blends behavioral health services with general and specialty medical services to provide whole-person care. Integrated care is a key component of high-quality primary care, an emerging best-practice model supported by many national professional organizations and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.

Polaha, a clinical psychologist and professor, said, “We want to inspire our behavioral health trainees to stay local and work in primary care.”

These students will gain valuable experiences working with vulnerable populations, particularly children, adolescents and transitional-aged youth at risk for behavioral health disorders. Through placements at health centers and other community-based settings, trainees will gain experience working in the underserved communities where behavioral health services are most urgently needed.

Polaha has spent the past 30 years advocating for integrated care; about 18 months ago, she established the Institute for Integrated Behavioral Health at ETSU Health. The Institute provides clinical services and resident and staff training for behavioral health providers across the ETSU College of Medicine clinics.

“We felt that incorporating behavioral health across all of the clinics could really improve patient experience and outcome primarily, but could also decrease burnout for our primary care faculty,” Tolliver said. “It also improves resident training.”

The Institute has been well received by the clinics and the community.

“ETSU Health has been proactive in creating an integrated care model in our clinics, and we are pleased that this HRSA grant will create additional opportunities to train and retain behavioral health professionals in our area,” said Dr. Bill Block, ETSU vice president for clinical affairs and dean of Quillen College of Medicine.

Although the HRSA grant targets the behavioral health workforce, Polaha, who also serves as a Washington County Commissioner, said its impact will be far-reaching.

“In many ways, growing a mental health workforce is one way to create a healthier environment so that people can experience balance, fulfillment and good health in their lives, including in their work,” Polaha said. “The health and well-being of our workforce has to do with people staying in their jobs, and more behavioral health services will contribute to a healthier community and workforce.”