Intermountain cuts costs, improves care by integrating mental health into primary care

Intermountain Healthcare has had success integrating mental health services into primary care.

Treating mental illness has traditionally been separate from treating physical illness, but that approach no longer makes sense and it’s past time for to change it, says Marc Harrison, M.D., president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.

Intermountain, the Salt Lake City-based healthcare system, has delivered integrated mental and physical healthcare services in team-based clinic settings since 2000, Harrison writes on STAT.

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The result has been better clinical outcomes for patients, more appropriate use of healthcare services and lower costs—estimated at about $667 per patient per year for those diagnosed with depression, says Harrison.

At Intermountain, patients who visit a primary care clinic fill out a screening questionnaire. If it suggests mental health issues, the doctor talks to the patient. Mental health professionals are there in the clinic and can immediately step in and provide treatment without the need for a referral or long wait, Harrison says.

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If adopted across the country, Intermountain projects the U.S.could save at least $4 billion a year in healthcare costs, he says.

Some people find it counterintuitive that better care can result in lower costs, but that’s often the way it works in healthcare. For patients, the bottom line is that getting care in a team-based setting where medical providers work hand in hand with mental health professionals results in higher screening rates, proactive treatment for both mental and physical ailments and better clinical outcomes for complex chronic diseases,” he says.

Integrating mental health professionals into the primary care setting solves a major problem: The reluctance of many primary care doctors to ask patients about their mental health because they don’t have the resources to help them with depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions.

A shortage of psychiatrists and mental health services has created a crisis in the U.S. that sends many patients to the emergency room as a last resort.