Life without a car is challenging. Sure, during the summer my legs are nice and toned from my bike and during the winter I have plenty of entertaining bus stories. There is no denying that I have reduced my carbon footprint. However, it can get frustrating trying to do simple things, like running errands. Say what you will about chain stores, but being able to bike to Walgreens and pick up prescriptions, photos, and nail polish in the same spot makes my life a lot easier.
The idea behind integrated care is similar. Why have your primary care provider, physical therapist, and behavioral health coach spread across the city? Why wouldn't you want all the moving parts of your wellness under one roof? The concept behind integrated care is simple—it is a model of health care delivery that attempts to care for the whole patient. In this setting, both physical and behavioral health providers work together to coordinate treatment and follow-up care.
Last month, as part of a partnership with Advancing Care Together, I traveled over 1,600 miles in two days, visited three health care practices, collected eight health stories, and consumed far too many snacks. I heard about exciting health care innovations across the state, and the impact of integrated care on both patients’ and providers’ lives. The resounding takeaway from the trip was that integrated health care is working and we as a state should continue to have a vested interest in this delivery model.
One of my storytellers was Dr. John Flanagan of Grand Junction, and he said that the integrated care model is universal—“The system is so complex that everyone can benefit from a team approach.” We know from research that more than 68% of adults with a behavioral health condition have at least one physical health challenge as well. Certain behavioral health disorders carry higher instances of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. This makes sense. If you are suffering from anxiety or depression, I’d imagine you are less likely to be focused on healthy eating habits and exercise. Conversely, certain physical health conditions make people more likely to develop emotional disorders. For instance, roughly one in five people who suffer from heart attacks become severely depressed. The relationship seems clear—if you are struggling with a traumatic physical health challenge there may be some behavioral health impacts as well. Research tells us that 29% of adults with a physical health condition also deal with behavioral health challenge. With such a close relationship between behavioral and physical health, integrated care can offer better access to treatment and help improve health outcomes.
The benefits of integrated care extend beyond the patient perspective. Dr. Flanagan knows that with this model, his life is better too. He knows his patients are “actually getting the care they need.” When he makes a referral, there is no longer a question as to whether or not it will be fulfilled; if one of his patients needs to see a behavioral health provider or a physical therapist, those services are in the same building. It is also comforting for him to know that care coordinators are available to help with some challenges outside of the practice walls, like housing or food resources. The team approach to behavioral and physical health is improving both the patients’ and providers’ lives at Dr. Flanagan’s clinic.
There are certainly still challenges to moving toward integrated care, as Dr. Flanagan shared with me. The payment system hasn’t really been worked out, and not all patients are ready for this new model of care. That being said, with so many benefits of making health care a little more one-stop-shop and a little less go-here-go-there, it makes sense to me that Colorado take a closer look at how to implement more of this model in our health care delivery system.