Although primary care to many just means annual physicals, health screenings and vaccinations, Hartford HealthCare’s Medical Group will now offer much needed behavioral health services in their primary care offices.

For too many patients coping with chronic diseases, there has been a wide gap in mental healthcare resulting in continual struggles and repeated visits. Research has found that approximately 75 percent of primary care visits require some level of behavioral health treatment, and to provide the best care possible for patients, a new approach was necessary to effectively address potential mental health and substance abuse conditions.

In 2015, the Hartford HealthCare Medical Group took steps to become a more integrated health care system by incorporating behavioral health into the primary care network. The program assigns a behavioral health specialist to a practice to work closely with patients struggling with any number of mental health issues, or those in need of additional support (such as smoking cessation).

During wellness visits, patients are routinely screened by their primary care provider for anxiety or depression relating to their illness. If appropriate, they are referred to the behavioral health specialist, to be seen in the same office, at the same time as their follow-up appointment, typically within a few days.

Patients are scheduled for up to seven brief sessions with a behavioral health specialist, lasting no more than 30 minutes apiece. The specialist works with the patient to address mild to moderate behavioral health issues relating to obesity, diabetes, COPD, alcohol misuse, pain disorders or a number of other conditions.

“When evidence-based behavioral health treatments are implemented, patients experience an improvement in their overall health,” says Ashley Shattuck, LCSW, a behavioral health specialist with Hartford HealthCare working in the primary care setting. “For example, a reduction in insomnia can lead to an improvement in mood and lower stress and anxiety. This decrease in depressive symptoms can result in healthier life style choices, including diet and exercise.”

Currently, these behavioral health services are available in roughly 25 primary care practices throughout Hartford HealthCare Medical Group. The program is continuing to expand, with the ultimate goal of being added offered at all practices to provide our patients with the highest level of care.

“Patients feel like they have a team of professionals supporting them, which increases their motivation to be active participants in their own health care,” says Shattuck. “When patients are invested in their care and receive support from an integrated team, it improves their overall health, including a reduction in emergency department visits and completion of vital preventative screenings.”