To help fill a shortage of trained professionals to treat substance use disorder (SUD), Ascend Indiana has developed a 21st century talent model that can be replicated by other health systems and also customized by a variety of employers looking to fill specific talent gaps. The model involves a partnership between an employer and higher education institution(s) that can rapidly create a pipeline of highly-trained professionals ideally suited for in-demand opportunities.

Prior to COVID-19, Indiana was already fighting another public health crisis: the opioid epidemic. Opioids – both natural and synthetic – have been the leading cause of drug overdose deaths for a number of years. Between 2017 and 2018, Indiana saw a 12% decline in overdose deaths. However, preliminary data from the CDC shows that in 2019, overdose deaths increased by 6% to 1,700 deaths. The corresponding demand for professionals to treat those diagnosed with SUD outstrips the supply of trained individuals, hindering treatment accessibility.

Unfortunately, these challenges have been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Likely due to a wide range of factors – including the elevated economic stress and social isolation starting early in 2020 – suspected overdoses in the U.S. have increased by 18% since March 2020. In Indiana, the administration of naloxone – the medicine used to reverse an opioid overdose – by Emergency Medical Services increased by 68% in 2020 compared to January through May 2019, largely due to the impact of COVID-19. These trends are especially troubling given the already existing shortage of trained professionals for providing adequate treatment.

Community Health Network, with the largest behavioral health system in the state, was one of the healthcare providers facing an acute shortage of trained behavioral health professionals to ensure those diagnosed with SUD receive treatment. In response, the Behavioral Health Academy was launched with support from Ascend Indiana and funding from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.

The innovative program created a talent pipeline to address the shortage of workers. Community Health Network partnered with the Indiana University School of Social Work-IUPUI Campus (IUSSW) and the University of Indianapolis to create a tailored curriculum that helps to deliver a steady annual flow of 20-30 dually licensed clinical social workers and licensed clinical addiction counselors to enhance the quality of treatment for people experiencing SUD. Currently, 26 students have completed the program to become eligible for dual licensure, and 29 additional students are presently enrolled in the program. The creation of this pipeline of qualified, specially-trained therapists is strengthening the fight against the opioid epidemic and helping to change the lives of those with addiction.

Acute shortages of workers in various economic sectors is nothing new. Even in the best of times, some job openings go unfilled because the available talent doesn’t have the necessary education or training to be considered for the job. The pandemic has compounded the problem. Some sectors face heavy job losses while other sectors face talent shortages. One way we can address this is through the replication of these custom talent pipelines.

To support the efforts of other health systems seeking to hire more social workers trained in addiction, as well as other employers looking for new solutions to their talent shortfalls, Ascend Indiana has developed a Talent Pipeline Replication Toolkit. This resource enables employers, education partners, and community-based organizations to scope, design, and launch robust work-based learning programs to close talent gaps and strengthen the local workforce.

This free online Talent Pipeline Replication Toolkit, developed with further support from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, guides health systems and other employers through a process to clearly define their demand, secure one or more education partners, design a custom talent solution, and launch a program that meets their talent needs. The toolkit provides a roadmap for employers, educational institutions, students and job seekers to prepare much-needed talent, while getting people back to work.

Addressing talent gaps is not a new challenge for employers, and COVID-19 has exacerbated talent shortfalls in some critical occupations. Utilizing Ascend’s free toolkit, employers can replicate this talent pipeline model to ensure they are prepared to meet demand for their products and services in both the short- and long-term. This is especially timely for health systems seeking to fill hard-to-staff frontline positions.

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