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Medical Family Therapy: Integration Into Healthcare

Posted By Jennifer Hodgson and Tai Mendenhall, Monday, July 26, 2010
Updated: Thursday, June 2, 2011

Medical Family Therapy (MedFT) is inspired by many people from several different professions. It has made a nest under the umbrella of Family Therapy by nature of its attention to the family unit, systems thinking, and relational foci. However, when it comes to practicing MedFT, numerous professions embrace and apply its concepts. My intent in this piece is to briefly introduce two core concepts (of many) that form MedFT’s foundation and articulate how they represent an asset(s) to healthcare.

Foundational Concept #1: Relationally-Minded. Medical Family Therapists, while generally viewed by others as professionals who are skilled at providing family therapy in medical settings, they see their role in a considerably broader frame. They work systemically with individuals, couples, parent-child subsystems, and can facilitate health behavior groups across a variety of mental health and physical health conditions and illnesses. Their work with relationships also extends out to the providers within the healthcare team and across the healthcare system. At times this looks like comforting a nurse who just lost her mother, sitting with a NICU resident who lost a baby in his care, calming down a physician who just found out that her patient is selling his pain medication at the local high school, or spending time figuring out how the clinical administrator can delicately reassign offices to accommodate a new hire. They see situations as having systemic impacts and help patients and providers to solve difficult relational issues. Where some may find comfort in working exclusively with the individual and see the support persons around the patient as data gathering assets, MedFTs believe that the more people in the room with the patient while the intervention is happening, the faster the change and greater likelihood of its sustainability.

Foundational Concept #2: Integrated/Collaborate Care Advocacy. Medical Family Therapists are trained to provide integrated and/or collaborative care in primary, secondary, and tertiary care settings. They recognize that without integration of care, patients will continue to fall in between the cracks of the healthcare system. MedFTs are trained to know and understand the culture(s) of medicine and have tremendous respect for it. They respect the ethical and reimbursement challenges that exist when integrating care and work to construct models that combine providers’ ideas into one shared treatment plan. They find the patient and family unit (as defined by the patient) to be critical partners in that process. You will also find MedFTs at the table drafting policy, designing models of integrated collaborative care, and running behavioral health components within healthcare settings. They are change-agents that help medical systems to thoughtfully integrate services in a manner(s) that pays simultaneous attention to the overlapping views and interests of the clinical-, operational-, and financial- worlds of healthcare.

It is through the advancing of these concepts (again, among others) that Medical Family Therapy is defined. Today there are several certificate and degree-granting programs in MedFT across the master’s and doctoral levels; within these programs the amount of education given regarding relational interventions and integrated collaborative care may vary, but these areas are consistently an important part of the curricula. This is important to note because not all family therapists, psychologists, social workers, or counselors who do family work are trained to do MedFT, and not all MedFTs are trained family therapists. And while MedFTs are not being defined as a independent profession currently, recent research shows that they are headed in that direction.

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