Behavioral Consult

How to bring behavioral care into your office


There is consensus within both the medical and public health communities that an integrated model of health care, in which behavioral health is integrated into primary care settings, is the optimal way to improve the health of a population (not just treat disease) while managing costs and improving the patient’s experience of care. Such a model is especially compelling for pediatric care.

There are 74 million children under 18 years in the United States and the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in youth is 20%, or 15 million; after vaccinations and following development, managing psychiatric symptoms is the most common issue in pediatric primary care.

While some psychiatric illnesses can be well managed by primary care clinicians alone, some illnesses require specialized therapy or more complex pharmacologic treatment. Untreated or inadequately treated childhood mental illness can lead to a longer and worse course of illness, academic difficulties, emergence of associated illnesses (such as substance use disorders), and legal problems. For those children with chronic medical conditions, emotional disorders cause distress, and affect adherence and family functioning. We will discuss some practical strategies to begin to bring behavioral health care into the pediatric primary care setting. The dream of tomorrow’s integrated behavioral health care should not preclude the possibility of coordinated or better colocated behavioral health care today.

Start by implementing behavioral health screening into annual and sick visits. Broad instruments, such as the Pediatric Symptom Checklist (PSC, 35 items) or the Child Behavior Check List (CBCL, 113 items) can be filled out by caregivers in the waiting room or online before a visit, and can suggest specific disorders or simply the need for a full psychiatric assessment. Electronic medical records may have publicly available questionnaires such as PSC built into their software, facilitating use of a tablet or home computer, and may ease scoring and downloading of results. Depending on the structure of your practice, you could have one clinician in charge of managing screening. You may become comfortable diagnosing certain disorders, such as ADHD, a major depressive episode, or an anxiety disorder, and you may begin medication treatment when appropriate. You can use instruments developed for specific disease entities (such as ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD], anxiety, or depression) to monitor your patient’s treatment response, and they may be done virtually to minimize unnecessary visits.

Treatment algorithms for most psychiatric illnesses are available through the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and can guide you through the early stages of treatment. Psychotherapy is the first-line treatment for mild to moderate anxiety and mood disorders, and it is critical to the treatment of more severe disorders. Difficulty in finding a therapist who is skilled in a specific treatment, is a good fit, and accepts insurance can be a significant barrier to care. Establishing a coordinated relationship with a team of therapists can facilitate referrals. Some states have programs in which primary care physicians can have telephone consultations with mental health clinicians or to access referral services for therapy, such as the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project.

If you have a busy enough practice, consider bringing a social worker or psychologist to work with you. Such a clinician could perform diagnostic assessments, ongoing therapy, parent guidance, family work, or care coordination. Consider how to make it cost-effective for this clinician and your group, whether by inviting that person to sublet one of your offices, or having that person directly employed by you and benefiting from your office staff and patient flow. Many states now reimburse for screening and these funds could contribute to the expense of a social worker. This approach would bring you from coordination to true colocation, which greatly improves the likelihood of compliance with therapy, enhances coordination of a patient’s care, creates opportunities for ongoing education between disciplines, and diminishes stigma of acknowledging a mental illness. Anxiety disorders are the most common illnesses of youth, with mood disorders emerging in adolescence, and substance use disorders in later adolescence. Consider this in seeking a clinician with a specific interest or skill set (such as cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety or mood problems, dialectical behavior therapy for chronic suicidality, or motivational interviewing for substance abuse).

Two doctors discuss a patient's chart. KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Thinkstock

Beyond diagnosing and treating psychiatric illness in your patients, a primary care pediatric setting with integrated behavioral health would improve the health of our young patients by investing in prevention and parental support. Universal prevention efforts are a hallmark of good pediatric care, from vaccines to educating parents and children about injury prevention (bike helmets, smoke detectors, and car seats) and risky behaviors (smoking). Educate your patients and their parents about best practices to promote good mental health, from good sleep hygiene to regular exercise and healthy stress management techniques. You could use posters and pamphlets, videos and smartphone apps, or screening instruments and discussion.

If you invest in a colocated mental health clinician, you can expand your prevention efforts beyond the universal. Screen for a family history of anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders, and screen for adverse childhood experiences scores. Chronic stress and a family history of specific psychiatric illnesses significantly increase the risk of specific illnesses in your patients. There are evidence-based interventions that can be used to prevent the emergence of many disorders in young people at specific risk. For example, parents who have struggled with anxiety can learn specific strategies for managing their children’s anxiety, significantly lowering the risk of anxiety disorders in their children. These skills can be taught individually or in groups, depending on the prevalence in your practice. Those insurers who reimburse for therapy have a reimbursement schedule for work with parents as well.

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek, professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics, Harvard Medical School, Boston

Dr. Michael S. Jellinek

There may be funds available to support your investment in integrated care. Under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid enhanced funding for Health Homes for enrolled children. There have been federal grants for primary care offices to engage in different levels of integration and measure outcomes (Project LAUNCH – Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health). There may be funding at the state level or from private foundations dedicated to public health research and initiatives. Even if you do not invest in procuring outside funding, you should consider how to measure patient outcomes once you are making any efforts at integrating behavioral health care into your practice. Outcome measures include questionnaire scores, treatment adherence, number of school absences, number of office or ED visits, or global measurements, such as the Child Global Assessment Scale (CGAS). Such data can inform you about how to adjust your approach, and could contribute to the larger effort to understand what strategies are most effective and feasible. Addressing the behavioral health needs of your patients could meaningfully contribute to the efforts to make the vision of integrated care – that which truly promotes health in our young people – a reality.

Dr. Susan D. Swick, attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, Boston

Dr. Susan D. Swick

Dr. Swick is an attending psychiatrist in the division of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, and director of the Parenting at a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the Vernon Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital, also in Boston. Dr. Jellinek is professor emeritus of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Email them at

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