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How Integrated Care Improves Mental Health Treatment for People With Physical Disabilities
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How Integrated Care Improves Mental Health Treatment for People With Physical Disabilities

Despite the high rate of mental illness comorbidities among people with physical disabilities, the mental and physical health systems in the U.S. are completely separate entities. Unfortunately, this decentralized healthcare system often leads to improper, disconnected, and redundant care. As a result, healthcare costs go up and patients end up exceedingly frustrated.

When healthcare professionals only address a patient’s physical issues — and not the associated mental health conditions — health problems are compounded, making it far more difficult for the patient to care for themselves. Untreated mental illness often worsens physical symptoms, preventing individuals from properly managing other chronic conditions. Consequently, they find themselves repeatedly returning to the doctor with the same physical complications related to the untreated mental illness.

Fortunately, a recent push to improve healthcare and control Medicaid costs has led to an increased interest in integrated care. Federal healthcare reforms and the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 — as well as technological improvements such as electronic medical records — have created systems of care that sanction the collaboration of mental and physical healthcare. This offering of mental health services in a primary care setting is often referred to as integrated care.

What Is Integrated Care? Integrated care is the attempt to either fully or partially blend mental health services with physical (or medical) health services. It’s realized when behavioral and physical health professionals work together to design and carry out a unified patient care plan. Medical professionals can offer integrated care in both inpatient or ambulatory clinical settings. By adopting an integrated care system, healthcare professionals can create a seamless organization that provides patients with the services they need, when they need them, regardless of their setting.

What Are The Benefits? The concept of integrated — or whole person — care is about planning services around the patient in order to meet physical and mental health, as well as social care needs. This integration of services enables the patient to be in full control of their conditions.

When it comes to the needs of working-age disabled adults, having a single point of contact for all health and social care needs is paramount. Cutting down on the number of assessments they undergo and how often they have to relate their story to unfamiliar healthcare professionals reduces costs and the likelihood of miscommunication. Furthermore, since the physical distance between separate health care provider settings can pose a significant barrier to collaborative care, integration involving the provision of physical and behavioral health care at the same site — otherwise known as colocation — makes things much easier. This facilitates both informal and formal communication between healthcare professionals and encourages patients to attend mental health appointments.

Integrated care is incredibly beneficial to all patients as it provides proper care for comorbid disorders, improves patient compliance with treatment plans, and normalizes mental health care and decreases stigma. It also improves both medical and mental health providers’ care by increasing their knowledge of each other’s disciplines. In fact, schools around the country — such as Arizona State University — have started actively teaching healthcare professionals how to work as a team.

Conclusion Integrated care improves mental health treatment for people with physical disabilities by establishing a team-based, comprehensive approach to patient care. By focusing on all of a patient’s needs (physical, mental, and social), hospitals, physician’s practices, and behavioral health providers can deliver higher quality care, encourage better health, and lower costs dramatically.

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