“It’s very hard to do integrated care and still think of mental health and physical health.”
Welcome to the first in the Integrated Care Thought Leader Series. This series will focus on the forward-thinking individuals who have had the foresight to envision possibilities in the healthcare industry’s future. I’m pleased to begin the series with a man who has been instrumental in advancing integrated healthcare.
Alexander Blount, EdD, better known to most as “Sandy,” has played a very important role in bringing the integration of behavioral health and primary healthcare to its current prominent focus within the healthcare industry. Dr. Blount is credited with coining the term integrated primary care in his 1994 publication, “Toward a System of Integrated Primary Care,” Blount A, Bayona J. Family Systems Medicine, 1994;12:171-182.
He currently serves as Professor of Clinical Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA and Director of Behavioral Science in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. He teaches resident physicians the psychosocial skills of primary care practice and founded the post-doctoral Fellowship in Clinical Health Psychology in Primary Care. He was previously Director of the Family Center of the Berkshires in Pittsfield, MA and a faculty member at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York. He has more than thirty-seven years experience as a therapist, teacher of physicians and therapists, administrator and lecturer in the US and abroad. He is a member of the National Integration Academy Council and has had a leadership role in state and national efforts developing healthcare policy. His books include Integrated Primary Care: The Future of Medical and Mental Health Collaboration published by W. W. Norton and Knowledge Acquisition, written with James Brule’, published by McGraw-Hill. Click here for more information about Dr. Blount.
It’s an honor to talk with Dr. Blount about the integration of behavioral health and primary care. Yes, he admits that he is optimistic about the direction in which the field is moving! His enthusiasm is almost palpable, with a freshness that belies the number of years he has devoted to the advancement of this revolutionary approach to healthcare. It’s apparent that this enthusiasm easily holds the attention of the students he teaches at UMASS.
Dr. Blount is a visionary whose diligent efforts and perseverance have made great strides toward bringing attention to the widespread failure to address the individual patient as a whole. He graciously agreed to provide insights for Behavioral Health Integration Blog:
What do you see as being the greatest barriers for successful integration of behavioral health and primary care services?
Dr. Blount: I see two things:
First are the barriers that have always been there: regulatory barriers that are built on the idea that mental health and medical services have to be kept separate, financial barriers that only pay fee for service and define services as what is delivered in specialty mental health, and cultural barriers on the part of both medical and mental health people that make working together difficult without some cultural broker who can make the connections and translations necessary. These have been our problems historically, and happily with the ACA and the PCMH movement, these are reducing.
The second area is the barriers caused by our own success. Because integrated care is becoming more possible and is proving itself, there is pressure to start programs in settings where there is little understanding of what it entails and little time and resources to prepare for the change. People are getting put into integrated programs or co-located, who aren’t trained for it and didn’t pick it. They don’t know what to do. They go in and do specialty mental health. They do what they’ve been trained to do…and it doesn’t work. Then administrators, who may have been skeptical initially, thought this was a fad, see this failure and think “oh yeah, I was right,” it was more inconvenient than useful. We felt we had to develop a training program at UMass Medical School available to these folks to prevent just this form of failure.
Also because there is sometimes a faddishness about integration, you get some administrators who become “true believers” who really don’t know how to do this. They see a presentation, and they say this is what we are going to do–and they start it without any depth of understanding. It’s sort of the administrative version of the clinician that doesn’t work. We need clinicians who are fully oriented to integrated primary care and leaders who are aware of the difficulties of making these changes and who can develop the buy-in from the whole practice. Integrated pilot programs are often funded on three year cycles. Places like the DIAMOND Project in Minnesota, where they’ve had some real time to make it work, say that it’s more like a five year cycle from beginning to fully transformed practice. I fear that federal and private funders will think it will happen faster than it does and will turn away.
Another barrier to our success is the workforce crisis we are facing. All of the government projections of what will be needed for behavioral health workforce, when compared to the number of people who are being trained, say we will have a terrible deficit, and those projections were made without any calculation of the workforce that has proved to be needed in mature integrated settings. When word gets out that we will need a four-fold increase over 2010 levels in behavioral health clinicians in Federally Qualified Health Centers alone, not to mention the rest of the health system, the true magnitude of the problem will become clearer.
What excites you about the field today?
Dr. Blount: One, is absolutely the transition in payment models that may make a great leap forward happen. Essentially those models let us implement the clinical routines of integrated care. Up to now the payment models have dictated routines that weren’t very integrated. Paying for health, rather than for services allows us to deliver evidence based care by the clinician best able to do it at the point that it is most sensible and acceptable to the patient. Having it actually knitted into the flow of care makes a big difference.
And the other thing that I see happening is a transformation in how we conceptualize mind and body, illness and health. It’s very hard to do integrated care and still think of “mental health” and “physical health”. The categories just begin to break down because they don’t describe the way people present. They don’t describe how problems form over the years. We’ve had science now for a good while on the plasticity of brain and the way that experience changes the brain and the brain changes experience. The current science even describes the way that experience changes what genes are expressed at various points in a person’s development. In other words, the science of the brain has been there but the way of thinking in our day-to-day clinical lives has not because we have been enacting models build on conceptions of separate domains. As we enact integrated clinical routines, we will begin to think differently. We create the likelihood that the science of the brain will be mirrored in the unity of our conceptions about people and how we try to help them.
So I think, at least in the places that are more developed, the places that integrated care gets to be mature, you begin to see different forms of conceptualization and hopefully we’ll be documenting those, writing about those, helping to pull others along. There aren’t many places where integrated care is really mature. The places that are mature are very different in numerous ways that don’t initially seem to be connected to integration. The question of “isn’t integration interesting, how do we work on it?” just goes away and the questions are about new ways of helping patients, new groups of patients we can understand better, and new ways of involving patients on their care teams. How we involve people in their own care, how we get past the doctor as leader and authority to doctor and the team as teachers and facilitators, that’s really the next piece. And when that is going well, I think that integrated care will sort of already be there.
Will you look into your crystal ball for us and tell us what you foresee in the future for integration?
Dr. Blount: Let’s imagine that we get it right in terms of mature programming, mature routines of integration as far as our workforce allows. Then we begin to be able to think about health and illness differently, and the whole set of concepts, the models that we have of understanding health and illness and how to influence those begin to move. I foresee the time when there’s a foundation of mature integrated care that we will be looking at great leaps forward in theory or great research leaps forward with greater understanding of what and how we should be researching. That’s one optimistic thing.
And when I look in my crystal ball I think we are going to have states that begin to have whole-state programs that are starting to be implemented and organized so that we can begin to look at the impact of integration on a really big scale.
Thanks so much to Dr. Blount for sharing his insights in the premiere of the Integrated Care Thought Leader series!
Check back soon for a conversation on integrated care with Benjamin Druss, MD, MPH, Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Chair and Department of Health Policy and Management Professor at Emory University.