Tips for addressing uptick in mental health visits: Primary care providers collaborate, innovate


Primary care providers (PCPs) are addressing an increasing number of mental health visits, requiring collaborative and innovative approaches to providing psychiatric care.

This growth in the number of patients needing behavioral health–related care is likely driven by multiple factors, including a shortage of mental health care providers, an increasing incidence of psychiatric illness, and destigmatization of mental health in general, suggested Swetha P. Iruku, MD, MPH, associate professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania and Penn Medicine family physician in Philadelphia.

Swetha P. Iruku, MD

Dr. Swetha P. Iruku

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that “the COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with mental health challenges related to the morbidity and mortality caused by the disease and to mitigation activities, including the impact of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders,” in a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

From June 24 to 30, 2020, U.S. adults reported considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19, and symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder climbed during the months of April through June of the same year, compared with the same period in 2019, they wrote.

Even before the pandemic got underway, multiple studies of national data published this year suggested mental issues were on the rise in the United States. For example, the proportion of adult patient visits to primary care providers that addressed mental health concerns rose from 10.7% to 15.9% from 2006 to 2018, according to research published in Health Affairs. Plus, the number and proportion of pediatric acute care hospitalizations because of mental health diagnoses increased significantly between 2009 and 2019, according to a paper published in JAMA.

“I truly believe that we can’t, as primary care physicians, take care of someone’s physical health without also taking care of their mental health,” Dr. Iruku said in an interview. “It’s all intertwined.”

To rise to this challenge, PCPs first need a collaborative mindset, she suggested, as well as familiarity with available resources, both locally and virtually.

This article examines strategies for managing mental illness in primary care, outlines clinical resources, and reviews related educational opportunities.

In addition, clinical pearls are shared by Dr. Iruku and five other clinicians who provide or have provided mental health care to primary care patients or work in close collaboration with a primary care practice, including a clinical psychologist, a nurse practitioner licensed in psychiatric health, a pediatrician, and a licensed clinical social worker.

Build a network

Most of the providers interviewed cited the importance of collaboration in mental health care, particularly for complex cases.

“I would recommend [that primary care providers get] to know the psychiatric providers [in their area],” said Jessica Viton, DNP, FNP, PMHNP, who delivers mental health care through a community-based primary care practice in Colorado which she requested remain anonymous.

Dr. Iruku suggested making an in-person connection first, if possible.

“So much of what we do is ‘see one, do one, teach one,’ so learn a little bit, then go off and trial,” she said. “[It can be valuable] having someone in your back pocket that you can contact in the case of an emergency, or in a situation where you just don’t know how to tackle it.”


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