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    Integrating primary care and mental health key to improving patient care, lowering costs

    Primary care physicians play important role in detecting mental, behavioral health issues

     

    This year 62 million Americans will, for the first time, have access to mental health and substance abuse benefits as a result of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). And most health plans are now required to cover preventive services such as depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children. That means more patients will be turning to their primary care doctors for help with emotional and behavioral health problems.

    Currently, more than 70% of visits to primary care physicians (PCPs) are related to psychosocial issues. One-quarter of adults experience a mental illness in a given year, and more than half receive no treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

    “We should be able to provide mental health services because our patients really need them,” says Russell Phillips, MD, director of the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Unfortunately, primary care practices often lack the resources, tools and expertise to address these issues.”

    In recent years, some clinics have started to call on psychiatrists, social workers and even clinical pharmacists to address the needs of their patients. Physicians at large health systems, including the Veterans Health Administration and Kaiser Permanente, treat mental health problems with psychiatrists’ oversight. And many other practices across the country are following suit. For example, six primary care practices affiliated with Harvard Medical School recently began offering mental health services through consultations with social workers and psychiatrists.

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    Next: Saving lives and lowering healthcare costs

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