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Bringing Mental Healthcare to More Patients

January 04, 2024

Embedding mental healthcare into primary care and specialty medical practices helps more patients while saving money.

“Every dollar spent on behavioral health saves six dollars downstream,” says James O’Dea, PhD, senior vice president of Hartford HealthCare’s Behavioral Health Network. “If a patient has diabetes and depression, and the depression goes untreated, that patient will be six times as costly to care for over time.”

That’s why, over the last 15 years, Hartford HealthCare has methodically added mental health clinicians to its institute, specialty and primary care offices across the state.

“Patients get their whole selves taken care of, not just what they are seeing the specialist for,” Dr. O’Dea says.

In addition to a better prognosis for patients, the approach is better for the medical system as a whole.

“When people have untreated psychiatric disorders, it’s hard for them to follow the rest of their treatment,” he explains. “If you have diabetes, you’ve got to make dietary changes, check your sugar on a regular basis, and administer medication. If you’re dealing with significant anxiety disorder or depression, it’s harder to follow those directions, and your condition worsens.”

People are less likely to seek the mental healthcare they need, so Dr. O’Dea says the question becomes how to make it more accessible.

“Integrated care brings a behavioral health professional into the treatment team environment so when the primary care provider says ‘I want you to go see a mental health professional,’ they are right down the hall,” he says. “Bringing them in as early as possible results in better outcomes and better prognosis.”

At Hartford HealthCare, psychologists and social workers are embedded in such practices as:

  • Primary care.
    • The Hartford HealthCare Medical Group started incorporating behavioral health into primary care practices in 2015. There are licensed clinical social workers in 40 of 68 primary care sites, with plans to expand.
  • Surgical weight loss
  • Bone & Joint Institute
  • Digestive Health Institute
  • Ayer Neuroscience Institute.
    • There are seven neuropsychologists embedded in the memory care and movement disorder programs, consulting with the multidisciplinary teams and offering assessments that inform treatment. “Patients feel like they have a team supporting them. This increases their motivation to be active participants in their own healthcare,” says Ashley Shattuck, LCSW, clinical manager.
  • Women’s health
  • Tallwood Men’s Health
  • Lifestyle medicine
  • Pain Treatment Center
  • Cancer Institute
  • Spine Wellness Center
  • Transplant services
  • Community Health

“We meet people where they are,” explains Ila Sabino, PhD, program manager of the Hartford HealthCare’s Institute of Living Division of Health Psychology. “Our clinicians have in-depth knowledge about medical diagnoses, disease processes and treatment, which can help reduce health-related distress while improving outcomes.”