Interprofessional Collaboration: a Theme at the Annual Summit on Emerging Issues in SW Practice

January 16, 2015 / By: Katie Johnson, MSW student and Field Practice Institute research assistant
2014 Field Practice Institute Summit panelists
School Social Work panel from 2014 Summit: Kathy Lombardi, Heather Alden, Mary Larscheid, and Christy McCoy

As printed in the Winter 2015 Social Work Perspectives newsletter

Beginning in 2012, the School of Social Work’s Field Practice Institute invited students, field instructors, faculty, and practitioners to an annual summit on emerging issues in social work practice. Topics have included clinical social work in medical settings, voices  of alumni, and mental health in educational settings. While each session has drawn distinct audiences, each group has identified a common thread: the importance of working effectively on interprofessional teams.

“It’s striking to note how interprofessional collaboration has surfaced as a theme at each of our three annual summits,” commented Lisa Richardson, director of MSW field education and co-director of the Field Practice Institute. “While social workers are accustomed to working in ‘host’ settings, the prevalence of the topic at the summits reinforces how essential it is to work collaboratively for change.”

“Social workers are skilled at thinking systemically,” Lisa Richardson noted. “As our summit presenters noted over and over, interprofessional work offers an opportunity to embody systems work and systems change.”

Across varied settings, social workers collaborate with a variety of professions to coordinate care and support for clients. Physicians, nurses, teachers, administrators, law enforcement officials, and other service providers become professional partners. Relationship dynamics in teams can be complex, with each member bringing a different perspective to the conversation and team member roles sometimes being unclear.

During our first summit, Tanya Rand and Cindy St. George from HealthEast emphasized the importance of such systems work in the medical setting. Social workers in hospitals and clinics have the responsibility of not only helping patients and families navigate health care systems and interpret complex terminology, but also educating various other medical professionals about the psychosocial issues of their patients. Social workers Leslie Sater and Diane Jorgensen added that social workers in the medical field had the additional challenge of working in a system that is outcome based, in contrast to a profession that values processes. The prevalence of cross-disciplinary supervision also requires that professionals from different disciplines understand each other’s professional identities and roles.

Our second summit featured the voices of alumni across diverse practice settings. Hospice social service manager and social worker Jim Heymans spoke about being an effective and competent interprofessional team member. He noted that while we need to
continually advocate for our profession, we also have the responsibility of understanding terminology used in our team members’ professions and respecting the authority of these other disciplines. Carey Winkler, director of BSW field education and co-director of the Field Practice Institute, reinforced this perspective. “Social workers on interdisciplinary teams need to be knowledgeable about and work in environments with varying ethical codes and standards.”

This past year’s summit focused on social work in educational settings. Kathy Lombardi, Heather Alden, Mary Larscheid, and Christy McCoy (pictured) identified the many professionals with whom school social workers collaborate, including school administrators, teachers, counselors, psychologists, and school nurses. Social workers in the educational setting have mezzo responsibilities of promoting effective school policies and administrative procedures, involving themselves in policy-making teams in order to advocate for social emotional learning initiatives, and promote interdisciplinary systems collaboration. In addition, school social workers provide professional development sessions for school staff on topics such as signs and symptoms of mental health conditions, best practices for responding to challenging behaviors, and information on how exposure to trauma affects the brain and learning. This type of professional development can change how educators view students’ behavior, expanding their perspectives to include the individual and institutional biases that create barriers to students’ learning.

While each of the summits presented unique ideas and challenges for social workers on interdisciplinary teams, all speakers emphasized the importance of communicating to team members the role and strengths that social work brings to each setting. Brenda Verbick with Allina Health encouraged social workers to demonstrate to other professionals our core competencies, including our systems perspective, strengths perspective, expert knowledge of mental health and chemical health issues, and knowledge of community resources. Indeed, social workers’ empowerment paradigm and emphasis on “starting where the client is” are well-aligned with the family- and patient-centered practices that are emerging with industry reforms. The unique contributions of social work to interprofessional practice and collaboration surely will continue as a theme for many summits to come.