Will 2022 See Us Integrate Mental Health Into Primary Health Care?
The past few years have seen many disruptions and changes in the health care industry. Unsurprisingly, health policy is also starting to shift, but not all of these potential changes center around COVID-19, as one might expect. Mental health is also taking center stage.
Behavioral health has grown increasingly prominent, revealing that these issues are more widespread than some may assume. Nearly 80% of the U.S. population reports feeling mental stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic alone. As the true extent of these problems comes to light, 2022 may be the year the U.S. integrates mental health into primary care.
Advantages of Integrated Care
Including mental health services in primary care has many advantages. Between 2016 and 2018, primary care physicians already accounted for most mental illness care. Many people don’t see a behavioral health specialist frequently, but they do see their primary physicians. As a result, these professionals can catch pressing issues earlier, enabling quicker care.
Primary care physicians don’t face the same cultural stigma as mental health specialists, so integration would help improve mental health care access. Studies also show that integrated care can lead to better health outcomes in many cases. Catching issues earlier, looking at them from a holistic perspective, and providing lifelong care all increase the chances of successful outcomes.
There are also financial incentives to integrate mental health into primary care. A 2019 study found that patients experienced 10.8% cost savings with integrated behavioral health. Integration helps avoid unnecessary ER visits and hospitalizations, and keeps patients in-network for mental health care.
While integrated care provides many benefits, it also carries its fair share of challenges. Most notably, primary care physicians typically aren’t mental health experts. Behavioral health is a specialized branch of medicine, so primary care centers may lack the expertise, resources, and skills to take care of it.
Primary care physicians must be able to accurately diagnose and provide immediate basic care for mental health concerns. That can be challenging, especially in pediatric care, where condition presentations vary significantly with age compared to adults. Without thorough, well-rounded training and a strong support system connecting to specialists, that remains a significant obstacle to integration.
Integrated care will also likely mean an increased workload for primary care staff. Considering the medical industry has the third-highest burnout rate of any sector, that could be an issue. Hospitals may need additional staff or new employee care strategies to account for these changes.
Possible Changes on the Horizon
These obstacles are significant, but the advantages of integrated mental health care are hard to ignore. Several trends suggest that a future of integrated care may not be far off, too.
New technologies could help make integrated care easier and help its adoption. For example, 55% of wearable tech users report improved mental health after using these devices, which many doctors use for remote physical care. Tools like these could streamline providing both physical and behavioral care, and reduce primary care providers’ workloads.
The Primary and Behavioral Health Care Access Act of 2020 would require insurance plans to cover three mental health visits annually without a copayment. That could provide a first step towards integrating mental health with already covered primary care. While the bill still awaits a decision, its introduction represents a growing concern for this issue.
There are other legislative signals, too. The U.S. Senate issued three requests for information about efforts to improve mental health care in fall 2021. These inquiries could suggest that legislation will follow.
Health Policies Are Turning Their Focus to Mental Wellness
Whether the U.S. will integrate behavioral health care into primary care is still uncertain, but it seems to be heading that way. While the sector and the government resources that support it must adapt to enable it, integration could bring positive change. Mental wellness could become a standard, destigmatized part of health care.