Reviewed by Claudia Reardon, MD
I’m stuck in behaviors that are making me unhealthy. My smoking makes my asthma worse, and I don’t want to end up with emphysema like my dad. I smoke when I’m anxious, and my finances, my teenager, my boss, and my increasing weight all make me anxious. Now to top it off, my chronic headaches are getting worse. My problems are physical, but I know they’re also mental. But the idea of seeing a psychiatrist makes me even more anxious! What should I do?
Patients need primary care doctors who can comprehensively address the varied aspects of their physical and mental health. Health systems are starting to recognize that multi-disciplinary teams (sometimes called patient-centered medical homes) can be an effective way to provide integrated care. How might this look for our example patient?
First, it’s worth noting that traditional primary care doctors already spend a lot of effort helping patients with a wide spectrum of behavior issues. We saw this for our example patient. Her anxiety is an example of a classic mental health problem—others might be depression, panic attacks, and addictions. Primary care docs refer some of these patients to psychiatrists, but primary care docs are treating the majority directly. Our patient’s headaches are likely a functional ailment. Like irritable bowel syndrome and general aches and pains, headaches are real problems that often defy simple solutions. Standard treatments focus on limiting symptoms while helping patients cope with the stressors and psychological distress that often contribute. Finally, our patient faces problems with health-related behaviors including tobacco use, diet, and stress management. These and other common behaviors are hugely important for the development of chronic diseases.
Our patient’s picture might seem complex, but primary care doctors face such complexity (and more) every day! Frankly, patients often are dealing with too much for their doctors to address optimally in a 15-20 minute time slot. One approach is to triage—to ask what’s treatable and doable, and what can wait until the next appointment. The limited time available for counseling tends to push primary care doctors toward relying on treatment with psych meds. A second approach is to refer the patient to a psychiatrist. But psychiatrists in many communities are spread too thin, so patients often wait weeks or months for an appointment. Then there’s stigma--our example patient’s anxiety around psychiatric care is actually pretty typical. This helps push up no-show rates for first visits with a psychiatrist to 30 or 40%. It’s no wonder that careful studies show that only a fraction of the mental health problems in our communities are ever diagnosed, and fewer still are adequately treated.
A third option returns us to the medical home concept. At the VA and increasingly in federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), mental health services are being brought into the primary care setting. Here, behavioral health consultants (BHCs) share space with primary care doctors. These are generally psychologists or social workers, that is, non-physicians. BHCs’ schedules are intentionally left mostly open, so that they’re available to see patients immediately after a non-threatening ‘warm handoff’ from the primary care doc. The BHC can offer expert counseling for the patient, and advise the primary care provider on diagnosis and treatment. BHCs arrange for a small subset of their patients to get a subsequent visit with a psychiatrist (a specialist physician), who is also in-house. All the BHC patients get systematic evaluation and follow-up by phone or with visits to make sure their needs don’t fall through the cracks.
When a behavioral health consultation system is in place, problems of waiting times, missed appointments, and incomplete records are eliminated for most behavioral health visits. Primary care docs have more time to focus on medical issues, while getting the expert consultation they need to optimize behavioral health care for their patients. Finally, because most behavioral issues can be addressed efficiently by BHCs, specialty psychiatrists are not so swamped, and waiting times can be greatly shortened for the small group of patients needing psychiatric care beyond what can be managed in the primary care setting. Tweet