The Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund has awarded $2.6 million to The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) for a technology-supported program for patients with unmet post-Harvey behavioral health needs.
The program will use the integrated care already available at UT Physicians clinics across the Greater Houston area as a springboard to enhance and expand the screening, triage, referral and behavioral health care of Harvey-affected patients. Training for primary care providers, a therapist-supported online cognitive behavioral therapy program, specialized trauma service and traditional behavioral health services will be included. UT Physicians is the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
“We are very grateful to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund for allowing UTHealth to develop this enhanced services program,” said Jair Soares, M.D., Ph.D., professor and Pat R. Rutherford, Jr. Chair in Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “This will be part of our new UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center, enabling us to expand treatment to Houston area residents who are experiencing symptoms of trauma related to Hurricane Harvey.”
UT Physicians clinics’ integrated care includes psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, nurses and social workers who specialize in pediatric, adult and geriatric behavioral health. Clinics in underserved communities are uniquely able to reach hurricane victims who have unmet behavioral health needs. Last year, UT Physicians integrated clinics saw 50,000 adult and 30,000 pediatric patients who were seeking behavioral health services.
“There is such a need for behavioral health care in our community. We are excited to be part of this innovative program for Houston area residents affected by Harvey,” said Andrew Casas, COO of UT Physicians. “This new initiative will meld with the integrated care that we uniquely provide in clinics throughout the Greater Houston area.”
To help pinpoint the areas in most need of behavioral health care services, the program will use information from the post-disaster Health of Houston Survey that will be released soon by UTHealth School of Public Health.
Since the first providers of care for patients are most often primary care physicians and nurses, training will be provided on the use of a behavioral health screening tool kit of validated measures that can be loaded onto auto-scoring technology notepads. Continuing education events will introduce the tool kit, a telepsychiatry consultation line and review of the identification and treatment of behavioral health concerns.
Patients who identified with more significant trauma-related conditions can be referred to a UTHealth specialist at the UTHealth Trauma and Resilience Center. Patients who are screened as having mild to moderate symptoms will have access to clinician-supported online cognitive behavioral therapy as an option, which can be helpful for those with barriers to accessing care such as transportation, time off work or child care.
Along with education and clinical care, the program will track outcomes and provide evidence-based treatment interventions for those identified as suffering from trauma-related disorders.
“All of us in behavioral health care have noticed a surge in consultation requests and return appointments since the storm,” said Elizabeth Newlin, M.D., program director, associate professor and vice-chair for child psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School. “Resources that were at capacity are now outstripped by our community’s demand for services. Many of the families I encounter are still struggling to overcome the impact of Hurricane Harvey and their frustration is compounded by difficulties obtaining needed help in a timely way. Resources for child behavioral health services have been particularly stretched. The funding provided by this grant will provide us with new tools and methods to more efficiently support the health of our community.”