New center integrates mental health into primary care

Center for Integrated Primary Care builds on existing expertise and programs

By Kristen O’Reilly

UMass Medical School Communications

July 28, 2011
blount spot
Alexander Blount, EdD 

The ability of primary care practitioners to involve a behavioral health clinician in a patient’s total care is essential to effective treatment, according to a growing movement in the health care field. Called integrated primary care (IPC), the concept is taking hold nationally as evidence grows that patients are more likely to successfully engage in mental health, substance abuse or health behavior change treatment—which can address problems at the root of other health issues—if they are treated in a primary care setting. 

With the new Center for Integrated Primary Care, UMass Medical School is set to take a national leadership role in this movement, building upon already existing expertise and programs and expanding into other areas, such as creating evaluation standards for effective models. 

“There is hard evidence that bringing mental health treatment into primary care makes a difference,” said Alexander Blount, EdD, clinical professor of family medicine & community health and psychiatry and director of the center. ”When done right, it has been shown to improve access to care, patient satisfaction, provider satisfaction and clinical outcomes.” 

While integration of care may make sense logically, actual execution has often proven to be problematic. Miscommunications and misunderstandings can happen between mental health clinicians who are unfamiliar with how primary care practices operate, and primary care practitioners who may not have the time or the understanding to teach the mental health professional how to adapt to the environment and be most effective. 

UMMS is already a leader in addressing this hurdle. Over the last five years, more than 1,000 mental and behavioral health professionals have attended the Certificate Program in Primary Care Behavioral Health, developed by Dr. Blount and colleagues, which teaches behavioral health clinicians to work successfully in primary care. Each year, 300 students come to campus—physically or via the web—to participate in six all-day workshops, one a month, that are taught by primary care behavioral health clinicians and primary care physicians from the departments of family medicine & community health, medicine and pediatrics. 

The new Center for Integrated Primary Care will allow Blount and his colleagues to expand on this successful certificate program to help train physicians to understand and address the behavioral health needs of their patients better. Also planned is a program for administrators to make the business case that integration of care is cost-effective, and therefore should be a part of the current transformation in primary care. 

Behavioral health is also getting more attention in the patient-centered medical home (PCMH) movement, because of its team-based model of primary care serving the whole person. 

“If the PCMH is as much a watershed in the design of health care as many people think, the United States could be facing a possible geometric growth in the demand for behavioral health clinicians to work in primary care and other medical settings,” said Blount. 

Related link: 

Certificate Program in Primary Care Behavioral Health