AMA launches physician collaboration to help doctors integrate behavioral health into primary care

Male patient sitting in chair having consultation with doctor or psychiatrist
The American Medical Association has formed the Behavioral Health Integration Collaborative, a new physician collaboration to promote the integration of behavioral and mental health care into overall health care. (noipornpan/GettyImages)

Mental health issues are spiking during the COVID-19 pandemic as Americans face enormous social and economic stress.

At the same time, access to behavioral healthcare—which had already been limited due to resource shortages and stigma—is even more limited.

The American Medical Association (AMA) is spearheading an effort to help make behavioral health more accessible by providing best-in-class support to physicians working to combine mental and physical health services in their medical practices.

AMA announced Tuesday it has formed the Behavioral Health Integration (BHI) Collaborative, a new physician collaboration to promote the integration of behavioral and mental health care into overall health care.

Led by several of the nation’s leading physician organizations, the BHI Collaborative includes the collective expertise of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Physicians, American Osteopathic Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

RELATED: Physician practices face financial challenges integrating mental health services, study finds

One in five adults in the U.S. has a clinically significant mental health or substance use disorder, yet many people do not receive treatment for their problems because of a shortage of mental health providers and lack of access to mental health services.

Physician organizations have long advocated for incorporating mental health services with primary care or overall medical care to improve the quality of care and expand access to behavioral health services.

But physicians continue to face major barriers integrating mental health services into medical care, including getting paid for services and health IT issues, according to a RAND Corporation study conducted in collaboration with the AMA.

To date, few primary care providers are physically colocated with behavioral health clinicians, according to the RAND research, suggesting persistent barriers to behavioral health integration.

"Without a clear roadmap for success, integrating mental and physical health services has been a challenge for medical practices," said AMA immediate past president Patrice Harris, M.D., in a statement.

"The AMA is committed to accessible and equitable treatment for behavioral, mental and physical health needs, and the BHI Collaborative will provide physicians with a proven playbook for implementing a holistic approach to physical, mental and behavioral health to meet the needs of all patients.”

To guide physicians through the barriers to successful behavioral and mental health integration, the BHI Collaborative is building an online compendium that will offer the collective resources of eight national physician organizations.

RELATED: Report: Wide disparity between mental and physical health coverage, payments

This publication will be a one-stop online collection for physician-tested resources that provide a proven pathway for delivering behavioral and mental health care in a primary care setting, according to the AMA.

As the compendium grows, it will be supported by free access to online webinar programming, remote learning opportunities and other resources with key steps, best practices, and tools to accelerate behavioral health integration, including fostering collaborative cultures and strong patient engagement, supporting accurate billing and coding, and integrating telehealth into practice.

The mental health toll of the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow as Americans confront stress, isolation, and traumatization. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, more than half of Americans feel their mental health has deteriorated during the pandemic, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found the impact has disproportionately been felt by Black and Hispanic communities across the country.

For medical practices looking to accelerate behavioral health integration as quickly as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, the BHI Collaborative not only offers a proven path toward implementation, but also an efficient path that does not require a major overhaul of current workflow or entail significant financial outlays, the AMA said.