Psychologist Neftali Serrano remembers when the concept of integrated care—the combination of behavioral health and primary care—clicked with him.
Dr. Serrano was working in a health center, down the hall from the primary care physicians. He only had two or three patients a day. “I was open for business and had no one coming in,” he said.
Out of that futility, he said he started spending time with providers instead of sitting alone in his office. This evolved to walking into exam rooms and working with patients directly.
“Within 30 seconds, patients were opening up about their behavioral health issues and getting to things that would usually take hour long visits or even a series of visits,” said Serrano.
Dr. Serrano said he connected faster to patients in a primary care setting. “They trusted their primary care doctors and they extended that trust to me,” he said.
Dr. Serrano now works with the Center of Excellence for Integrated Care, a program of the Foundation that trains health care professionals and providers to treat behavioral and physical health in one setting.
[box type=”bio”] “They trusted their primary care doctors and they extended that trust to me.”[/box]
Integrated care can work especially well among the aging population. Two out of three Americans aged 65 and over have chronic illnesses, which are often coupled with mental health distress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20 percent of adults over 55 have a mental health concern. Decreased mobility, isolation and health complications can cause anxiety, depression, and severe cognitive impairment among our aging community members.
Integrated care can offer older adults a safe place to get help with these behavioral health issues.
“Some older adults are not as willing or able to go outside the walls of a primary care office to see a therapist,”” said Dr. Serrano. “Having a behavioral health consultant right there is a more culturally appropriate way to deliver care for folks who are more comfortable with primary care.”
[box type=”bio”] Integrated Care can offer older adults a safe place to get help with behavioral health issues.[/box]
Initial research trials among the elderly combined psychiatric therapy with primary care, and proved to be very successful, said Dr. Serrano. For example, cardiovascular health, a common concern for the elderly, can improve by treating depression. “There are clear links between heart health and depression,” said Dr. Serrano.
Another advantage of integrated care is the free flow of patient information. The patient’s medical history is on hand, and can better inform the behavioral therapist, instead of having to start from the beginning with every patient.
Integrated care can also help primary care physicians make better assessments for their patients. For example, depression is often masked by physical health issues. Patients with vague pain may be suffering from isolation or loneliness.
“Oftentimes primary care doctors will do a whole lot of work to address the physical problems but fail to address the root issues,” said Dr. Serrano.
There is also a certain threshold a patient must meet for referral to a mental health therapist. Many people that need behavioral health assistance may not have acute behavioral health issues, but would benefit from the input of a therapist in their primary care office.
Dr. Serrano said it will take a lot of broad training across specializations to prepare the medical profession for an older population. Mental health professionals in particular, according to Dr. Serrano, will need to reconfigure their mindset and work-flow. “Mental health professionals are more accustomed to sitting in an office by themselves than working on a team,” he said.
The Center of Excellence for Integrated Care (COE), a program of the Foundation, helps providers make this adjustment. They have practical training programs on all aspects of integrating the silos of behavioral health and primary care in any setting where health care is delivered. COE is also dedicated to reducing the stigma associated with behavioral health issues. Accessing therapy through a primary care doctor can help reduce any discomfort of feeling of shame about needing help. The integrated approach to elderly care is important to recognize and replicate as our population continues to age.