August 20, 2020

Mental Health Care Can Benefit Chronically Ill Patients, Study Says

Janelle Ringer, Loma Linda University Health News

Integrating mental-health care into the primary care of chronically ill patients improves patient outcomes and significantly reduces health-care costs, according to a new study from Loma Linda University Health.

The study, titled “Evaluation of the Healthcare Cost Offsets of Mend: A Family Systems Mental Health Integration Approach,” published in Family Process, found that health-care costs may be reduced by an estimated 34.3 percent each year using an integrated mental and physical health-care approach.

While focusing on chronically ill patients, the study presented findings similar to other studies over the past decade that have highlighted the benefits for a variety of patient populations when a behavioral health professional is integrated into the primary care team.

Brian J. Distelberg, the study’s principal investigator, said the study reiterates the need for mental health providers to be integrated into the primary care team.

“Even though behavioral health is a branch of medicine, it’s often treated separately. Now people are starting to see the importance of behavioral health working side by side with the rest of medicine,” he said.

About 70 to 75 percent of mental health services are being delivered in the primary care setting, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Experts who are specific to behavioral health care aren’t the ones providing the care needed,” Distelberg said. “Integrating behavioral health into primary care, and the hospital system as a whole, has been shown to be best for patient outcomes.”

Distelberg said health systems have sometimes been reluctant to integrate mental health into primary care because of the initial cost and workflow adjustment. However, once integrated, patients will experience significantly improved outcomes and costs will be significantly reduced, he said.

Distelberg and the team at Loma Linda University Behavioral Health assessed the total health-care costs of 107 adult patients over a 12-month period before and after the intervention, finding that there were better outcomes with less cost over time.

The study’s patient population was composed of patients in Loma Linda University Behavioral Health’s Mastering Each New Direction (MEND) program, which offers behavioral health care to those also battling a physical health condition, such as kidney disease, cancer, or other chronic conditions.

“We hope to see this type of integrated approach — and the increased patient benefit and cost savings to health systems — catch on more widely,” Distelberg said.

The original version of this story was posted on the Loma Linda University Health news site.