Behavioral Health Integration: How Does It Change Mental Healthcare if Patients Have Easier Access to Help?

September 27, 2021
Mental health in America is a touchy subject and yet, ironically, a subject that’s not touched on nearly enough. When you visit your primary healthcare provider, the last thing you may expect is to discuss your mental health. How you feel emotionally and mentally is just as important, however, as how you feel physically and can, indeed, affect every aspect of your overall well-being.

As a health system on the forefront of patient care, Hancock Health takes their patients’ mental health concerns seriously. By launching a new initiative called “Behavioral Health Integration,” primary care physicians are working to ensure their patients’ mental well-being is addressed right alongside any physical health concerns. 

Ben McAllister, D.O., clinical program lead of Behavioral Health Integration at Hancock Health, laments the frustrations many patients experience when trying to get in to see a therapist or psychiatrist. “With a referral to a psychiatrist or therapist, it could take months to get in, so this is a great option for those who need help now.”

What it is

This cutting-edge program looks like this: A patient visits their primary care physician and, during their visit, the doctor asks about their mental health. If said patient is grappling with a mental health issue that would benefit from the care of a therapist or psychiatrist, the physician simply calls in an on-staff therapist. 

The therapist then assesses the patient during the rest of the physical exam. This ease of access creates a greater equality in finding help for everything from mild to more moderate mental health threats. Erika Bruggeman, MSW, LCSW and a behavioral health coordinator, is on staff in both the New Palestine and McCordsville offices to assist any patients in need of a mental health check.

But wait, it gets even better

McAllister claims that the best benefit of the program is not only speaking directly to a licensed therapist but having access to a psychiatrist as well. Once a patient has worked with the therapist on staff in the physician’s office, their information is entered into a registry. From there, the therapist meets with a consulting psychiatrist to diagnose any conditions, prescribe medications, etc. This provides a great backup if a therapist is unsure how best to proceed with a patient.

You may be surprised to learn of these coordinated efforts, but this is the type of teamwork for which Hancock Health is known. Programs like Behavioral Health Integration save both patients and the health system money over time, and although this isn’t the main reason this program is beneficial, it is definitely a welcomed advantage. 

What is referred to in the mental health profession as a “warm handoff” is also a benefit of this type of patient care model. Patients experiencing mental health issues may feel vulnerable sharing their story with multiple therapists, but Behavioral Health Integration allows the patient’s own doctor to offer a direct handoff to a trustworthy on-staff therapist. Many times, this builds an immediate trust in the framework of the relationship and leads to a lot of healing conversations.

Are there ANY downsides?

The only problem that McAllister has encountered with the program involves insurance. It’s difficult to bill insurance for something that involves both physical and mental health and doesn’t always easily fit into one category. Medicare seems to be the easiest to work with when implementing the cohesive treatment. The problem, claims McAllister, is that “the younger population of patients may be missing out.” He hopes that, with time, these wrinkles will be ironed out enough for the program to flourish throughout Hancock County.

When it comes to mental health, we really can’t be too proactive. Patients of Hancock Health are lucky to have a program like Behavioral Health Integration to help them reach their full wellness potential without the need to hunt down a therapist only to find themselves on a long waitlist. If you want to find out more about this type of cohesive platform for addressing mental health concerns, check out the Advancing Integrative Mental Health Solutions (AIMS) Center website.

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