The School of Social Work is training students to be leaders in the health care field through the UT HEALS program. Directed by clinical assistant professor Dede Sparks and funded by the Council in Social Work Education, the National Association of Social Workers, and the New York Community Trust, the program supports two students in the bachelor’s program and two students in the master’s program. Each student commits to focused health care social work education, a health care field placement, and attending a national policy conference in Washington, D.C.

We had an informal conversation over lunch with the four current UT HEALS scholars: social work seniors Aimee Valdez and Lawren Meadows, and master’s students Candy Taylor-Ceballos and Amanda Brinegar. They had recently returned from attending the policy conference in Washington, D.C.

Left to right: Lawren Meadows, Amanda Brinegar, Candy Taylor-Ceballos, and Aimee Valdez. Photo by Shelby Knowles.
Left to right: Lawren Meadows, Amanda Brinegar, Candy Taylor-Ceballos, and Aimee Valdez. Photo by Shelby Knowles.
You will be graduating soon. What did you like best about the UT Heals program?

Valdez: “I really liked that we had the chance to take an interprofessional education class with students from pharmacy, nursing, and the medical school. It was very useful to get a broad, integrated experience in class.”

Meadows: “Also, by sharing the classroom with students in other health professions we learned how to communicate with each other. This experience has helped us communicate with doctors and nurses in the health-care related field placements we are currently in.”

Taylor-Ceballos: “I’m at Hospice Austin for my internship, so I collaborate with an interdisciplinary team on a daily basis. I’m the only social worker in my group, and this program has helped me communicate better with my colleagues and educate them on what social work is, what we stand for. These are important skills for me because I do want to continue in the health care field after I graduate.”

Brinegar: “The program is a confidence booster, which I think we social workers need. It’s up to us to stand up for our profession, and UT HEALS has been great to give us the confidence and permission to speak for our profession and brag about what we can do and offer.”

Taylor-Ceballos: “Yes, today for example I was at Hospice Austin and I had to meet with the nurse practitioner to have her sign some referrals, and she was asking me questions about what the referrals were, and for whom, and so on. The program helped me be more confident in communicating what needed to happen, what needed to be done. It can be intimidating to speak with medical practitioners, because many times they don’t really like being told what to do by others in the team.”

Brinegar: “I’m at MD Anderson in Houston for my field placement. Everyday I have to explain my role to someone in the medical team. And it’s not only informing them about what we can do but also explaining what we don’t do. For example, I recently got a referral to write a letter for a patient so that they could stay in the country longer. I could not do that, I had no knowledge of what the medical treatment was. So I had to talk to the physician’s assistant, which can be really intimidating. But having the training that I had, it was easier to say, ‘this is something that you have to do, and here is why.’ So, it’s important to set boundaries for yourself and help your colleagues understand what you do and value your skills. And in my experience, people in the medical professions learn to appreciate what we do as social workers. For instance, I was recently in a patient’s room and the doctor walked in. The patient was crying with me, and the doctor was like, “Ok, never mind, I will come back later.” That was one of those moments when I felt they realize that what we do is valuable for the team.”

Early in March you went to a national policy conference in Washington D.C., where you met with other social work students who are in programs similar to UT Heals. Tell me about your experience.

Meadows: “Meeting with other social work students who are focused on health care felt like… aaaahhhh (she sighs in relief), somebody knows!  We shared a language, I felt that everyone understood where we are coming from, what we are going through. It was really a sense of relief, of reassurance, of community.”

Valdez: “It was also interesting to see how diverse the group was. Everyone was of course interested in health care, but there were many different areas, from policy work and research to international work. It was inspiring to see the different routes you can take with social work and health care.”

Brinegar: “We attended panels with social workers who are working in policy. There was a big push for us to think about ourselves as advocates and how we can impact policy through our social work lens, because we know the specific ways in which policy can impact the clients we work with. It was interesting to listen to social workers about what they are doing in D.C. and the world of politics, which was new to many of us in the clinical social work track.”

Taylo Zeballos: “The last day we were asked to pick a topic related to health care and social work, and go and talk with our representatives. I teamed with Amanda, and we went to Lamar Smith’s office. We talked with his staffer about how the Affordable Care Act had extended coverage for mental health, and how that was important for many of our clients.”

Brinegar: “This was in early March, so they were starting the process of trying to repeal the ACA and passing the new health care bill. We explained why we thought mental health coverage was important, and how we saw that in our field placements. We had a good conversation, and it was good practice for us to talk with the staffer in our representative’s office.”

Meadows: “Aimee and I met with with one of Lloyd Doggett’s staffers. We knew that Dogget was interested in gerontology and had won an award for advocacy for older adults, so we knew what to focus on. But our meeting was short, mostly because I was very nervous and I deviated from the plan we had come up with!”

Vadez: “But we had a good experience preparing for the meeting. Throughout the semester we participated in webinars with other social work students across the country. Going to Capitol Hill and actually doing it was very scary, but afterwards you feel that you want to do it again, and do it better.”

Brinegar: “As a young woman, it was also interesting to walk around the Capitol, which is predominantly a white male world. It made me realize that we need to make a change, we need more women and people of color making policy.”

Do you have plans to continue in the health care field after you graduate?

Valdez: “I would like to continue in the health care field. I’m doing my internship at CommunityCare in South Austin, and before my internship I was working People’s Community Clinic. It had been interesting to see how different the experience can be, even though both are behavioral health settings.”

Meadows: “I’m biased toward nursing homes because that’s where my field placement is. I’m at Walnut Hills, a nursing home and rehab facility in East Austin. Before working at the nursing home I took care of my great-grandmother, who had been diagnosed with dementia. I know for sure that I want to work with the aging population. It’s a growing, vulnerable population and more social workers are needed to serve it.”

Taylor-Ceballos: “I did community mental health before I came to the master’s program, and I loved it. At the time, that was the direction that I wanted to take. But like life, everything changes, and I’m really interested in hospice work and palliative care now. Although I’m open to any kind of health-care-related career in the future, I mostly see myself continuing in palliative hospice care.”

Brinegar: “I came to health care late in the game, after I went to a talk by a visiting professor about interdisciplinary health care. I was really touched by his discussion of the role of social work and its importance, because I had never heard that before. And then I applied for the UT HEALS program, and started the internship at MD Anderson, and I now I really love it! I love working in an interprofessional team, and the challenge and the pace of the work.”

By Andrea Campetella. Posted April 17, 2017.