Public Health

Physicians take new approach to add mental health care to standard practice

Mental and behavioral health issues such as anxiety, depression, smoking and physical inactivity impact many aspects of health. Find out how one university health service incorporated behavioral health to help their patients live happier, healthier lives.

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While primary care seeks to improve the overall health of patients which includes both mind and body, treating both medical needs is often met with barriers such as lack of resources, lack of time and the perceived stigma that many patients have toward mental health care.

The AMA’s STEPS Forward™ collection of practice improvement strategies offers ways in which you can embed behavioral health within a practice to expand services to meet both the mental and general health needs of your patients. 

How Cornell University did it

Cornell University Health Services recently set out to show the value of an embedded behavioral health consultant as a cost-effective and culturally sensitive approach to merging mental health with standard practice.

Nearly 80 percent of Cornell students used campus medical services. Although surveys showed as many as 40 percent of students could have benefited from mental health care, only about 18 percent used such services. One barrier was that counseling and medical services were provided separately. 

To offer their student population the best possible access to care and overcome barriers, Cornell developed a one-year pilot program in which they embedded a behavioral health consultant within a medical unit to work with four clinicians. 

Suddenly students who said they would not have sought out traditional mental health services were finding the behavioral health consultant very helpful. The program reached under-represented minorities, international and graduate students, and others well beyond the general student population. The clinicians reported that this partnership increased the quality of care, and the entire staff developed a new appreciation for the volume and significance of mental health concerns in the primary care setting. 

With the success of the pilot, Janet Corson-Rikert, MD, executive director and associate vice president of Cornell University Health Services, decided to expand the program. Now, each medical team includes at least one behavioral health consultant. 

Dr. Corson-Rikert offered these three suggestions for those currently implementing or considering similar programs:

  • Set up an interdisciplinary team to support the behavioral health consultant and enable nimble problem-solving around operational challenges. 
  • Leverage the behavioral health consultant’s expertise for both behavioral and cultural concerns.
  • Use regular case reviews to facilitate education and team discussion based on the behavioral health consultant’s experience.

More ways to transform your practice

Improving the quality and reach of care is never an easy feat. Check out these other modules from the STEPS Forward collection to help guide your practice improvement strategies:

More than 25 modules are available in the AMA’s STEPS Forward collection, and several more will be added later this year, thanks to a grant from and collaboration with the Transforming Clinical Practices Initiative.