The Section of Pediatric Psychology

March 10, 2016 by

Q: Tell me about your program.
The Section of Pediatric Psychology in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics provides outpatient behavioral health assessment and treatment for youth with comorbid developmental and medical concerns in multiple clinics throughout the Department of Pediatrics. The program began three years ago with the hiring of our first behavioral psychologist, Dr. Alisa Bahl, who renewed psychology and behavioral services in the Division. An increasing demand for psychological services led to the development of a vision for the Section of Pediatric Psychology. In the past year, we added three psychologists, Drs. Erin Berenz, Emily Gonzalez, and Laura Shaffer, to work toward better addressing the vast behavioral health needs of the patients at UVA Children’s Hospital. There are now psychologists who see patients in Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Endocrinology, Hematology/Oncology, and Teen Health. These services were targeted as starting points due to the particular expertise of our four psychologists. Part of my work as Section Chief involves identifying additional needs in the Department and developing a proposal to expand pediatric behavioral health services.

Q: What makes your program stand out?
We are the only Section of non-physician clinical faculty in the Department. As psychologists, we have doctoral level training in assessing and treating mental health concerns, psychosocial factors associated with health and adherence to medical treatments, consultation, and research design and methods. We are good systems thinkers and our training dovetails nicely with the tripartite mission of the medical school: service, teaching, and research.

Q: How many patients do you serve?
In our first eight months as a Section, we conducted over 890 visits, of which 301 were initial visits. It is important to note that this was during the start-up phase for two of our psychologists who account for 70% of our clinical service. We are already seeing incredible growth in the number of visits provided now that our practice has become more established in the Department.

Q: What’s your goal for the department?
Our goals are to work together to better meet the mental and behavioral health needs of the children and adolescents served by UVA Children’s Hospital, provide exemplary integrated primary and specialty care services, and increase interprofessional education.

Q: What have you learned that you’d want to share with others in the department?
Change takes time and commitment but is possible even in seemingly improbable circumstances. We have found this to be true in our work with children and families as well as program development.  It helps to honor even the smallest of steps along the way.

Q: Was there one story that really stood out for you along the way?
As part of our collaboration with local community partners such as the Virginia Institute of Autism, we were referred a boy with an autism spectrum disorder who had an extreme phobia of medical settings and procedures. His pediatrician would conduct visits outside in the parking lot because he would refuse to even walk into the building, scream, and struggle to escape. After several sessions of exposure to routine medical instruments, coupled with rewards for completing the steps necessary for success, he was able to sit calmly for all components of needed medical intervention including ECG and injections.

Q: What do you feel is the most exciting part of work?
Programmatically, we are excited by the opportunities to collaborate with so many others to build a more comprehensive mental and behavioral health program for the youth and families who seek care at UVA. As clinicians, it is invigorating to see families make changes that help children have healthier behaviors and relationships.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
It is an honor to be part of a children’s hospital aspiring to address children’s whole well being. We recognize that the mental and behavioral health needs are great and that our services are not as accessible as all would like. Thank you for your patience as we grow! If you have ideas about additional needs and services, please let me know so that I can talk with you to learn more.


Left to right: Laura Shaffer, Alisa Bahl, Emily Gonzalez, and Erin Berenz

Filed Under: Features