Alaskan health center is model to integrate mental health into primary care

Unhappy female patient and doctor
Integrating behavioral health into primary care is inevitable, says Donald Berwick. (Getty/AlexRaths)

A health center in Anchorage, Alaska, was ahead of its time. Since 1985, Southcentral Foundation, a center that serves native Alaskans, has woven mental health services into its primary care practice.

The center has had impressive results and is now being held up as a model as the healthcare system looks at ways to better provide mental health services to patients, according to Politico.

Bringing both mental and physical care under one roof is now being touted at as a way organizations can help patients and save money. Southcentral integrated that care after conducting a survey of its community and finding the top five health priorities were all related to mental health, including issues such as child sexual abuse, behavioral health counseling and addictions, CEO Katherine Gottlieb, an Alaska Native, told Politico.

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At the clinic, a mental health evaluation is part of each visit and a primary care team includes a psychologist or social work who can offer on-site care. Patients are able to access mental health treatment at the center where they see their primary care doctor, with no stigma attached to seeking services.

While most Americans said in one recent poll they have at least one mental health issue that affects their well-being, few ever talk to their primary care physician about their concerns.Training primary care physicians to handle behavioral health issues is important given the shortage of psychiatrists and mental health services, which has created a crisis in the U.S. that sends many patients to the emergency room as a last resort. Two-thirds of primary care physicians report having trouble getting psychiatric services for patients, as it can take three to six months to get an appointment for a patient with a psychiatrist.

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At Southcentral, the health center has lowered hospital admissions and visits to the emergency room by more than a third between 2000 and 2015. A recent survey found 97% of patients were satisfied with their care. And the center has been recognized for its approach, receiving a Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for providing top-quality care for less cost.

Donald Berwick, former head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and founder of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, told Politico that integrating behavioral health into primary care is inevitable. “Look, we’ve got to solve the healthcare cost problem,” he said. In fact, healthcare systems are being innovative about it, such as Carolinas HealthCare System, which is using telehealth to integrate behavioral health services into its primary care offices.