PBHJP Spotlight: Bridging Research to Service

Friday, May 2, 2014

By Andrea Negrete, PBHJP Research Coordinator

How do you bridge the research to service gap? This question drives much of the work of Dr. Suzanne Kerns, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Division of Public Behavioral Health and Justice Policy.  Through her own experience as a clinical psychologist getting trained in multiple child and family behavioral health evidence based practices (EBPs) along with years of working with community providers, she began to see how hard it is to learn new models, absorb new information and master new skills while at the same time meet the diverse needs served by community based agencies –to her “this seemed like an intriguing conundrum and a neat opportunity to get creative.”

By bringing together her clinical skills, community psychology principles, and adult learning strategies, Dr. Kerns is working to translate clinical research discoveries that are often done in ideal conditions into practices that can be implemented in the real world. One way she is engaged in this work is by focusing on workforce development, which to Dr. Kerns is only one piece of the puzzle but one that can have a real impact. As she stated, “at the end of the day if we want to have a public health level impact we can’t ignore the people who deliver the programs.”

Dr. Kerns currently leads the University of Washington Workforce Development Task Force out of the Evidence Based Practice Institute which includes an interdisciplinary Graduate Course Series focused on preparing UW graduate students to deliver and promote evidence-based practices in children’s mental health and a Workforce Lecture Series which brings together community and university professionals to engage in dialogue and learn about new evidence-based innovations and practices.  The impetus for the Task Force came out of conversations from community providers who felt that students were coming out of their university education without sufficient knowledge of EBPs and a survey done with students at the University who reported a lack of hands on experience with EBPs. The Workforce Lecture Series has evolved over time to include a diverse array of speakers and panels with academics, legislatures, and community providers that present on EBP policy and practice. The Graduate Course Series provides opportunities for coursework on EBPs that target the most common child mental health issues seen in community based settings (e.g., depression, anxiety, behavior problems, etc.) and extends to extreme complex cases as it relates to adolescent issues (i.e. co-occurring disorders). A variety of 1 credit courses such as Motivational Interviewing are also offered. The courses aim to not only give students breadth and depth in the underlying principles of why strategies are effective but also an opportunity to receive hands on training in an EBP. Some future directions and expansions of the graduate course series includes mapping on a unified experience to student’s departmental requirements while connecting them with practicum experiences, increasing conversations with community based agencies to see if there are other types of courses they would find useful for students to complete, and tracking where students are being placed post-graduation.

Most recently, as a member of the Child and Family Evidence Based Practices Consortium Workforce Development Group, she co-authored the report “Evidence Based Practices in North American MSW Curricula” which looked at the extent to which MSW programs in North America (U.S. and Canada) are integrating evidence-based practices in their curriculum.  “We wanted to take a step back to see what is being taught currently. We started with MSW programs but eventually want to do it more interdisciplinary,” she said. The findings of the report suggest that the majority of schools who responded reported teaching at least one EBP and only a minority of those institutions are offering multiple EBP training courses. However, when looking at the list of programs reported by institutions as evidence-based practices it was clear that confusion remains in the field about what constitutes an EBP. The report also highlights that while great progress has been made to bridge the research to service gap, much work remains to match the training and skills that professionals develop in higher education institutions with the range of mental health needs that families have. “There is a lot more we could do in higher education. If you want to have a whole system that has effective treatments you have to get at the educational level,” she said. The report is a first look at what MSW programs are currently doing to prepare a workforce to provide evidence based practices and provides some background and needs assessment level information that can be used as a conversation starter as people are thinking about evolving their training program. This report has been accepted for publication in the journal Research on Social Work Practice.

Dr. Kerns is also working with colleagues at the University of Maryland School of Social Work to support the design and implementation of the National Center on Evidence-Based Practice in Child Welfare which looks to provide training to the child welfare workforce, mental health providers, and people in leadership positions within those systems to deliver trauma informed evidence based services. “Our future communities will have an opportunity (including child welfare and mental health) to support each other around best practices so that the children and youth involved in the child welfare system get their needs identified and addressed using evidence based approaches; whether they are happening through mental health or supported through caseworkers or both.”