January 15, 2020

Integrated Care: The Role of Mental Health Practitioners on the Primary Health Care Team

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By Kevin Rowell, PhD
Department of Psychology and Counseling
University of Central Arkansas


As with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, U.S. health care continues to develop the patient-centered medical home model as a way of efficiently coordinating health care delivery. Especially for older patients where complexity of health care is the norm, the weight of responsibility in providing effective, safe, and lower cost interventions rests squarely on the primary care practitioner (PCP).  Now that baby boomers have reached late life, it is estimated that approximately one-fourth of patients seen in primary care clinics are over age 65. Although most are in good health, the natural decline in health with aging results in a greater presence of physical illness and dysfunction such that most older adults have at least two chronic conditions, as well as developing acute illnesses at prevalence rates similar to younger adults (CDC, 2013, as cited in Hunter et al, 2017).

While the public clearly understands that primary care is designed to be the first line of help in the case of medical illness and that most treatment is rendered therein, the majority of people do not realize that primary care practitioners are very often the first line of treatment for mental health issues as well (O’Donohue et al, 2005). People struggling with common disorders involving depression, anxiety, and substance abuse will more likely seek help from their PCP before considering intervention from a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or clinical social worker. In fact, roughly one-third of the visits to PCPs is due to a mental health concern, and another one-third of visits involve a medical diagnosis that has a significant mental health component (Blount, 2003). The reasons are attributed to familiarity with the PCP, greater access to a PCP as compared to specialists (especially in rural areas), and fear of stigmatization in visiting a mental health clinic (Hunter, et al, 2017).

Research has shown that the most prevalent mental disorders are major depression, generalized anxiety, somatization, and substance abuse. Other common mental health issues include relationship conflict, stress, sleep disturbance, and fatigue. Not surprisingly, women are much more likely than men to report issues with mental health, which is a very consistent trend across most health care settings. Regarding patients over 65, other mental health issues involve cognitive decline, sexual dysfunction, grief/loss, isolation/loneliness, and lower motivation in managing chronic diseases (Hunter et al, 2007).

Whereas the PCP is able to provide appropriate intervention for many of these issues, usually through medication and perhaps brief consultation, a myriad of factors limits the effectiveness of the PCP in addressing primary mental health disorders and secondary mental health issues in chronic disease management. For example, diagnosing some mental disorders usually necessitates somewhat lengthy interviews and often a screening test, yet the high volume of patients scheduled daily in primary care clinics limits the time a PCP can spend with an individual patient. Furthermore, 60-85 percent of PCPs reported being under-trained in diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Additionally, when PCPs decide for a referral to a mental health specialist such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, wait times for appointments can be weeks and the likelihood of the patient following through with the appointment is less than 25 percent. Finally as previously mentioned, many people, especially older adults, with mental health concerns feel stigmatized in visiting a mental health clinic and will often refuse to seek help rather than potentially feel embarrassed or shameful (Blount, 2003, Hunter et al., 2017).

To address these issues, the fully integrated behavioral health model calls for the placement of a full-time behavioral health clinician (BHC) to be employed in primary care. Typically the BHC is a licensed psychologist, professional counselor, or clinical social worker who has received special training in integrated care behavioral health. Advantages of the behavioral health clinician are many. Of utmost importance is the presence of a mental health expert in primary care whose function is to identify primary and secondary mental health issues in patients and then to collaborate with the PCP and other staff in providing effective evidence-based interventions for patients. Through research backed behavioral interventions, BHCs can address stress reduction, mindfulness, sleep hygiene, maladaptive thoughts, as well as adaptive, healthy life style changes like exercise, relaxation, diet changes, smoking cessation, and decreased alcohol/substance use, all of which directly improve mental health and chronic disease management (Hunter et al, 2017). For the older patient, BHCs can conduct screenings for dementia and other cognitive problems, address social isolation, and help with sexual dysfunction.

Research indicates that when a full-time BHC is employed in primary care, treatment effectiveness increases, patient and staff satisfaction increase, and treatment and medication costs decrease (Blount, 2003; Ogbeide, Stermensky II, & Rolin, 2016). For example, one consistent finding is that patients with mood (depression) and anxiety disorders show significant improvement, often without medication, when they work closely with a BHC. Furthermore, when a referral to a mental health specialist is necessary, patients are much more likely to meet the appointment, particularly if the BHC can meet briefly with them during the wait time before the first appointment. The BHC is also freed from the standard 8-10 minute PCP appointment duration to better gather interview information, discuss treatment goals, and even implement brief 15-20 minute follow up appointments to reinforce interventions that are working and to make adjustments where needed.

Older adult patients should be encouraged by the addition of a BHC member to the PCP staff. Such a health care provider is able to better address so many more issues than one’s PCP, and the fact that the BHC has been called in to meet with the older patient in no implies that the patient should be embarrassed or stigmatized. It simply means that he or she will be receiving optimal holistic care that has been shown to have significant benefits.




Blount, A. (2003). Integrated primary care: Organizing the evidence. Families, Systems, and Health, 21, 121-134.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). The stage of aging and health in America 2013. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/health/state_of_aging_and_health_in_America_2013.pdf.

Hunter, C. L., Goodie, J. L., Oordt, M. S., & Dobmeyer, A. C. (2017). Integrated behavioral health in primary care: Step-by-step guidance for assessment and intervention (2nd ed.). Washington DC, American Psychological Association: Washington, D.C.

O’Donohue, W. T., Byrd, M. R., Cummings, N. A., & Henderson, D. A. (2005). Behavioral integrative care: Treatments that work in the primary care setting. New York: Brunner-Rutledge.

Ogbeide, S., Stermensky II, G. & Rolin, S. (2016). Integrated primary care behavioral health for the rural older adult. Practice Innovations, 1, 145-153.