Integrating Behavioral Health and Primary Care

The September 29, 2009 edition of NJAMHA Newswire reports on a trend appearing strongly in New Jersey and in many other states: attempts to provide primary care treatment at the behavioral health setting or alternatively, to integrate behavioral health treatment into the primary care setting. In fact, the National Council, the major membership organization of community behavioral health care providers, has introduced an online Resource Center for primary care and behavioral health collaboration on their web site. This center comes out of six years of work in this arena.

FierceHealthcare, a daily newsletter for health care executives, reported on this trend in its September 30, 2009 edition. The article mentions the research literature that documents the tendency of primary-care physicians to miss the signs of common mental health issues like depression. Overlooking the mental health issues can often complicate both behavioral health and physical health treatment. A diabetic who experiences some debilitating mental health issue may not be able to comply with their required diet and self-care, just as a pregnant woman taking lithium to manage her bipolar disorder faces consequences for her child from her medication. The behavioral health and physical issues are inextricably intertwined.

Behavioral Healthcare online edition of October 1, 2009 reported a SAMHSA-funded study that indicated that general practitioners, not psychiatrists, are the most frequent prescribers of psychotropic medications. This includes pediatricians among the GP category since they usually are the primary care physicians for children.

The FierceHealthcare article identifies the financial and health benefits of the integration of mental health screening and prescribing into primary health care settings. Making sure that mental illness is not overlooked is one way of assuring that patients get the most effective treatment for all of their illnesses.

Since mental health treatment has usually been considered specialist-level care, there is concern among behavioral health providers that such screening and treatment by GPs is not the appropriate care in the right setting. Given how busy primary care providers are, it is highly likely that medications will be prescribed without psychotherapy or other appropriate behavioral interventions.

Health care reform is focused on saving money and providing effective care as efficiently as possible. Some would argue that the primary care provider’s intervention in behavioral health issues is the appropriate, cost-effective way to assure proper diagnosis and treatment. Most mental health providers I know would disagree, perhaps arguing that screening and referral to specialists is the appropriate and most effective way to provide care.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you see the possible integration of behavioral health care and primary care as positive for you and your clients? How is this likely to impact the way you currently provide services? What about those of you who already work in primary care settings; is this the ideal way to provide care to all patients, to complicated patients, or to no one at all?

Please let us know your thoughts on this issue. Just click on the title of the article and enter your comments in the box at the bottom of the page.

0 thoughts on “Integrating Behavioral Health and Primary Care

  • I am hard-pressed to see this working out. Intriguing in theory, unworkable in practice. Let’s talk money…Joe Psychologist works in PCP Dr. Jane’s office. Dr. Jane has a packed schedule and so can easily and readily bill for all of her work. Dr. Joe can not because patients are not coming in for a 90801 or 90806. So, how can Joe bill without some degree of informed consent from the patient? i.e., I come in to get a flue shot, or my annual exam. Do I want to or have I even agreed to see a psychologist? So, while Dr. jane keeps a packed schedule, Dr. Joe does not. Additionally, how satisfying can it be to Joe to not be able to work in the typical psychologist fashion–see established patients once a week? (How can good therapy be conducted when the therapist is seeing patients on an unpredictable schedule of less than once a month? I predict Dr. Joe will quickly find a busy psychology practice where he can keep busy, hence earning a decent annual salary.

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