Health & Family

Carolinas HealthCare integrating behavioral health in primary care practice

At the same time it opens a new hospital to reduce the shortage of psychiatric beds, Carolinas HealthCare System is also focused on reducing the need for inpatient psychiatric care.

It recently launched a program to integrate behavioral health care in primary care settings so patients can get diagnosed earlier and receive prompt treatment before they reach a crisis and require hospitalization.

At least 50 percent of every primary care visit involves a patient with an underlying behavioral health problem, said Martha Whitecotton, senior vice president for behavioral health at Carolinas HealthCare.

One way to address that would be to embed a psychiatrist in every practice, but that would be expensive and impractical, especially with the current shortage of psychiatrists.

A recent report from the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research says 28 counties across the state do not have a psychiatrist.

As an alternative, Carolinas HealthCare has created a team of psychiatrists, pharmacists and other behavioral health specialists that will spend time with all the system’s primary care doctors, educating them to recognize symptoms of mental illness and know which medicines to prescribe and in what doses. Mint Hill Primary Care is the first of 250 primary care practices working with the integration team.

“Much of (mental illness) can be effectively treated in the primary care setting,” Whitecotton said. “That’s a place where patients feel safe. There’s very little stigma there. A lot of patients will not seek treatment in a psychiatrist’s office. There’s a lot of evidence that the earlier you get patients into treatment, the better chance you can avoid the crisis.”