This is an exciting time for students and professionals in behavioral health care. The integration of behavioral health and primary care is in the process of being established in the U.S., and practitioners, as well as patients, are beginning to reap the benefits. An initiative that began several years ago is finally being recognized as the best way to treat patients who suffer not only from behavioral and substance use issues, but from physical challenges as well.
According to Dr. Benjamin Miller (National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2011) “Integration is in response to the fragmentation of health care. As individuals, we are not fragmented, we are whole people. The current health care system does not recognize this. Integration is trying to fix a big problem, which is that we have two separate systems that take care of our health. Integration is a game changer for health care.”
So what does integration mean for primary care and behavioral health practitioners? It begins with the incorporation of mental health care into primary care settings and, conversely, including primary care in mental health and substance use settings. These integrated relationships are changing the culture, procedures, and attitudes of both primary care and behavioral health professionals and, as with all organizational changes, challenges exist. These include developing a shared language in order to better communicate patients’ conditions, and developing skills for “warm hand-offs”, where patient conditions are discussed by both sets of professionals in front of the patient. Challenges with billing for services also exist, as it can be difficult to quantify where the services of the primary care and the behavioral health professionals begin and end. However, in spite of organizational challenges, patients are benefitting from a system that facilitates treatment among professionals from different disciplines. Fully integrated health care systems are able to reduce the number of patient visits, increase preventive care, and easily communicate treatment thereby impacting patient wellness.
Benefits, challenges and barriers to the integration of behavioral health with primary care have been recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and grants have been awarded for encouraging students who will become behavioral health professionals to participate in clinical sites that meet the HRSA criteria for integration. The Albizu University Master’s in Psychology Programs has been the recipient of two major HRSA grants that provide $10,000 stipends for qualified students who conduct their clinical/practicum or field supervision hours at an integrated site. Students majoring in Mental Health Counseling, Marriage and Family Therapy, and School Counseling may apply for the $10,000 stipends during their practicum process. In the past three years, over 100 stipends have been awarded to Albizu Master’s in Psychology students who qualified. The current HRSA grant, which ends in 2021, will continue to accept applications for the stipends each semester. For more information, please call 305-593-1223, Extension 3207 or 3130.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2011). A family guide: Integrating mental health and pediatric primary care. Retrieved from http://www2.nami.org