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Delivering Whole Person Care:  Avoiding the Pitfalls of Integrating Primary Care into Community-Based Mental Health Centers

By Dr. Betty Rabinowitz, MD FACP

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Blog Home    Delivering Whole Person Care:  Avoiding the Pitfalls of Integrating Primary Care into Community-Based Mental Health Centers
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Providing primary care to patients with mental illness is a challenging task that requires highly skilled and experienced practitioners comfortable with the full array of biopsychosocial problems with which these patients present. For example, understanding the side-effect profiles of the psychiatric medications and their impact on problems such as diabetes and other complex endocrinopathies requires highly evolved clinical skills.  

Optimally, the successful care of these patients is best provided in close collaboration among the entire health team including the prescribing psychiatrist and the primary care provider. Indeed, integrated care models are becoming more prevalent with patients being cared for by primary care and behavioral health teams, collaborating and/or collocated in the same practice using a single electronic health record (EHR).

Many behavioral health practices are considering adding primary care services in order to better address these whole person healthcare needs. In the NextGen® Advisors’ conversations with behavioral health and physician groups across the country, we find several challenges that groups are universally grappling with.

Staffing Requirements

  • Establishing primary care services requires a decision as to the skill sets of the primary care providers that will staff the practice, such as: 
  • Should this team be physician led? 
  • Should the team include advanced practice providers (APPs)? 
  • Will the APPs be physician assistants (PAs) or nurse practitioners (NPs) or a combination of these skill sets? 
  • What is the optimal ratio of APPs to medical doctors (MDs)?  

These are not easy decisions, as the differences between the foundational skill sets of these providers are nuanced and often somewhat opaque to a behavioral health leadership team. 

A physician-led team will require recruiting family physicians, general internists, or medicine and pediatrics board certified providers. Staff planning is further complicated by a shortage of primary care practitioners of all skills sets in many areas of the country, especially rural communities. It is our experience that many groups will often not have the luxury of very detailed resource planning; they often must build teams by recruiting the resources available rather than the ideal combination of resources and skills. 

Introducing these new medical practitioners into a behavioral health practice challenges many areas of the organization. For example, from a human resource perspective the process of recruiting, interviewing and onboarding primary care team members is different than the process for behavioral health practitioners. Pay scales are different and guidelines around practice sharing and part-time work may pose new frontiers. Leadership and governance issues such as privacy and HIPAA rules pose an interesting challenge as leaders of the behavioral health practice likely have not had prior experience managing a primary care practice where these issues are handled differently from behavioral health. 

A Common Electronic Health Record (EHR) 

One of the biggest challenges facing groups adopting an integrated care model by adding primary care services to a behavioral health practice is the fact that their current technology infrastructure does not support both behavioral health and physical health workflows well.  

A common EHR is essential since true integration is virtually impossible unless both behavioral health and primary care providers are able to access a single clinical record for the patients they share. We see groups that have done so much work to start and sustain a primary care practice but have not implemented a single common EHR. It is clear that despite their best efforts care continues to be disparate and disconnected as providers in both disciplines are unable to fully access each other’s notes, and critical information regarding their common patients is not easily shared. It is imperative for groups to consider implementation of a single integrated EHR platform capable of seamlessly and fully supporting both behavioral health and physical health workflows and regulatory requirements.   

Cross Referral Workflows 

In conversations with behavioral health leaders about their vision for the integrated model in their organizations, they often cite their hope that any patients receiving behavioral health in their organization also receive primary care and that the same holds true for patients receiving primary care who might need behavioral health services. These cross referrals are at the core of the integrated, whole person model’s viability and sustainability. 

Achieving this cross-referral is often difficult to operationalize. There are practice-driven barriers, such as the absence of clear workflows for both teams to engage patients at every opportunity to seek mental health treatment as well as primary care in the same organization. We observe that to be successful, these referral workflows need to be formalized, trained, reinforced, and incentivized by the leadership of the practice. There are also patient factors at play where patients already have a primary care provider or with patient reluctance to engage with primary care. It is important to implement a process that makes establishing primary care an easy and seamless step for patients. Many successful integrated practices describe a workflow whereby the behavioral health provider actually walks down the hall with the patient to the primary care office to make their first primary care appointment. Electronic workflows that support this task are easily supported if the providers share the same EHR platform.

Billing and Revenue Cycle Management (RCM)

The financial viability of the integrated, whole person practice can be threatened unless organizations carefully prepare for the initiation of primary care billing. If internal expertise in this area is not readily available, or cannot be hired easily, the practice should consider outsourcing the primary care billing operations to an outside entity with deep expertise in this area. This is so important as it could make the different between financial viability or failure of the primary care practice. 

Integrated Care is In Sight 

It is encouraging to see the integrated, whole person care model gaining momentum across the country. Continued study and research will be required to refine the model further to ensure high quality, cost-efficient, and compassionate care is offered to this highly vulnerable segment of the population. Fortunately, the aforementioned deployment of truly integrated health IT platforms in these practices will also generate the clinical, quality, and cost data that can provide the insights needed to further refine and scale this essential care model.  

Many behavioral health practices have very successfully integrated primary care services providing their patients with enhanced, comprehensive, whole person care for both their behavioral health and physical health issues. Careful planning and attention to the common challenges will help practices avoid some preventable pitfalls.  

If your practice is struggling with issues pertaining to the integration of primary care, the NextGen® Advisors can help.  Please contact us at advisors@nextgen.com for more information.


Dr. Betty Rabinowitz, MD FACP

Chief Medical Officer

Dr. Betty Rabinowitz was appointed as our chief medical officer on April 19, 2018. She brings to this position more than 25 years of extensive clinical experience and expansive knowledge of population health and value-based practice transformation. In her role, Betty is tasked with helping NextGen Healthcare promote and improve our solutions in support of our clients’ provider performance, clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction, and financial efficiency…

Dr. Betty Rabinowitz was appointed as our chief medical officer on April 19, 2018. She brings to this position more than 25 years of extensive clinical experience and expansive knowledge of population health and value-based practice transformation. In her role, Betty is tasked with helping NextGen Healthcare promote and improve our solutions in support of our clients’ provider performance, clinical outcomes, patient satisfaction, and financial efficiency.

Betty joined the NextGen Healthcare family in August 2017 as one of the founders and the former chief executive officer of EagleDream Health, the cloud-based analytics and population health management solutions we now know as NextGen® Population Health, which drives meaningful insights across clinical, financial, and administrative data to optimize ambulatory practice performance.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dr. Rabinowitz graduated from Ben-Gurion University Medical School in Israel, where she also completed a residency in Internal Medicine. She came to the United States in 1990 for a fellowship in Medicine and Psychiatry at the University of Rochester School of Medicine, where she became a professor of clinical medicine. In addition, Dr. Rabinowitz served as the medical director of the University of Rochester’s Center for Primary Care, overseeing clinical operations and population health management for the university’s large employed primary care network. In 2020, she was named on the list of the Top 25 Woman in Healthcare Software by the Healthcare Technology Report.

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