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Integrating Primary and Behavioral Health Care to Create Healthier Communities

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  • Written By: Clint Forster

When you go to the doctor, you’re putting your trust and care in the capable hands of highly-educated professionals that specialize in making people better. However, many illnesses and healthcare issues can’t be detected with blood work and X-rays. While we want to get better and know why we’re suffering, many people overlook the role that mental health plays in our overall physical condition. Behavioral health issues can impact every part of our life and some impact our physical health.

According to the World Health Organization, people who suffer from mental health issues die earlier than the average person. They die from untreated and often preventable illnesses like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, which are often accompanied by poor habits such as lack of exercise and poor diet.

These days, primary care centers have become the gateway to the behavioral health system, and primary care providers need support and resources to screen and treat individuals with behavioral and general healthcare needs. The answer? An integrated care healthcare model. The Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) Michael R. Zent and Glendale Healthcare Centers have offered primary and mental health care under one roof for the last two years. By Integrating mental health, substance abuse, and primary care services, JFCS produces the best outcomes and offers the most effective approach to caring for people with multiple healthcare needs.

For individuals that are a part of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), integrated care means that the disabled, young, elderly, poor or pregnant have the same access to quality care as individuals on the most comprehensive health care plans. Financial access to care, transportation and gaps in knowledge about how to properly care for themselves are no longer a barrier to quality care. Combining primary and behavioral care means a well-rounded approach to treating the whole person and in an efficient manner, regardless of social or economic circumstances.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

  • As many as 40 percent of all patients seen in primary care settings have a mental illness
  • 27 percent of Americans will suffer from a substance use disorder during their lifetime
  • 80 percent of patients with behavioral health concerns present in ED or primary care clinics
  • Approximately 67 percent of patients with behavioral health disorders do not receive the care they need
  • 68 percent of adults with mental disorders have chronic health disorders and 29 percent of adults with chronic health disorders have a mental health disorder.

These statistics make a great case for why integrating primary and behavioral health care is critical to creating and supporting healthy communities.

We should view healthcare as treating the whole person. In addition to positive health outcomes, it’s also cost-effective care. Many people may not have access to mental health care or may prefer to visit their primary health care provider. Although most primary care providers can treat mental disorders, particularly through medication, that may not be enough for some patients. Historically, it has been difficult for a primary care provider to offer effective, high-quality mental health care when working alone. Combining mental health services/expertise with primary care can increase patient satisfaction, reduce costs, increase the quality of care, and, ultimately, save lives.

Dr. Lorrie Henderson is president and CEO of Jewish Family & Children’s Service.