Alumni Spotlight: A Calling to Serve Children

Thursday, November 15, 2018

PAU alumna Heather E. Unrue, Ph.D., always wanted to work with children, but only set her sights on becoming a child psychologist after majoring in early childhood education and pre-law during her undergraduate studies. After earning her doctorate at PAU Pacific Graduate School of Psychology in 2015 and completing her post-doctoral training at Texas Scottish Rite, Dr. Unrue joined the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center (CCHMC) as a staff psychologist. She works in the pediatric primary care clinic in Fairfield, one of six locations serving the Cincinnati, Ohio community.

Dr. Unrue provides early intervention care to all child patients seen by pediatricians at the clinic during check-ups, weight checks, or visits for behavioral and/or emotional concerns. Additionally, she works with all families with children under one-year of age being seen at the clinic for preventative care, and with children already diagnosed with a mental health condition. The most common issues she treats include sleep issues, tantruming, picky eating/obesity, aggression, noncompliance, daycare/preschool start difficulties, ADHD, oppositional youth, youth with early conduct signs, school suspension/expulsion, and adjustment-related behavioral changes.

“What I find most satisfying about my work is providing families with early intervention care that prevents long-term sleep problems, life-long obesity, continued school problems, and bigger diagnosable mental health conditions in their future,” says Dr. Unrue.  “Families get so much feedback about how to raise their children, whether it’s based on evidence, tradition, or old and debunked practices. Many go to their pediatrician for guidance, but these doctors only get 15 minutes to spend during a patient visit, which doesn’t provide ample time to answer the wide variety of developmental questions. To combat this, I step in to provide families with personalized, quality, up-to-date information to nurture long-term positive development for their children.”

Dr. Unrue’s supervisor, Jessica M. McClure, Psy.D., clinical director of Behavioral Medicine and Clinical Psychology at CCHMC, noted that Dr. Unrue has been instrumental in piloting the spread of integrated behavioral health (IBH) practices in CCMHC’s primary care clinics.

“Dr. Unrue’s clinical skills and collaborative approach to working with a multidisciplinary team led to the success of our pilot, and we have now transitioned to IBH being the standard of care in the clinic.” Dr. McClure said. “At her clinic recently, one provider described Dr. Unrue’s influence as ‘life changing’, noting her work has significantly improved the care of patients and families. Because of her skills, she has been asked to assist in training medical residents in the clinic.”

When asked what motivated Dr. Unrue to study at PAU, she responded, “I was accepted at three doctoral programs straight out of undergraduate training, but PAU was the obvious choice because they offered a strong research component, and training and teaching have always been interests of mine. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to study with several professors at the top of the psychology field.”

She cited the mentorship of PAU Professor Wendy Packman, Ph.D., J.D., and said the support she provided through several significant life stressors was invaluable. “She directed me to the necessary coursework and training opportunities, and helped me overcome stressors so that I could complete my degree. Once I decided to be a health psychologist, I decided to focus on just that type of training, but it was the program requirements and Dr. Packman’s advice on ensuring general training that made me uniquely qualified for my current position at CCHMC.”

Reflecting on her plans for the future, Dr. Unrue said she hopes to complete the integration of psychologists into the greater Cincinnati area’s pediatric practices. During that time, she plans to continue playing a leadership role within the CCHMC clinic through training residents and practicing physicians on the value of early psychological intervention in primary care.

She also hopes to do more writing about clinical case studies and research to encourage nationwide increases in early intervention for the improved health of children. “I hope to take on more advocacy roles and/or university roles to normalize the use of psychology in our public education system in an evidence-based and fluid manner,” she said. “I want to help teach the next generation of psychologists about the importance pediatric health psychology, preventative care, and early intervention.”