Primary Care Providers Often Addressing Mental Health Concerns

Since before the COVID-19 pandemic, primary care providers (PCPs) have been addressing an increasing frequency of mental health concerns, particularly anxiety and stress-related diagnoses, based on a recent study.

These findings point to a sizable gap in psychiatric care that has likely been exacerbated by the pandemic, reported lead author Lisa S. Rotenstein, MD, MBA, instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and assistant medical director for population health and faculty well-being at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, both in Boston, and colleagues.

To ensure that PCPs can effectively manage this burden, innovative approaches are needed, such as value-based care models, billing codes for integrated behavioral health, and e-consultations with psychiatric colleagues, they added.

“Previous studies demonstrated that the rate of adult mental health outpatient visits increased between 1995 and 2010,” Dr. Rotenstein and colleagues wrote in Health Affairs (Health Aff. 2022 Feb 6. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2022.00705). “However, more than a decade later, the extent to which the rate of primary care visits addressing mental health concerns has changed is unclear, with multiple health care delivery trends potentially influencing a further increase in prevalence.”

To address this knowledge gap, the investigators turned to the 2006-2018 National Ambulatory Medical Care Surveys, a nationally representative, serial, cross-sectional dataset. The present analysis included 109,898 visits representing 3,891,233,060 weighted visits.

Over the study period, the proportion of PCP visits that addressed mental health concerns rose from 10.7% to 15.9%.

This latter figure has probably increased since the onset of the pandemic, the investigators wrote, while availability of psychiatric care hasn’t kept pace, meaning PCPs are increasingly on the hook for managing mental illness.

“Even before the pandemic, one in five Americans lived with a mental health condition,” Dr. Rotenstein said in a written comment. “The COVID pandemic has only accelerated demand for mental health treatment. … We know that there aren’t enough psychiatrists to meet this demand.”

Over the course of the study period, the rate of depression and affective disorders diagnoses slowed while anxiety and stress-related disorders were increasingly diagnosed.

“Particularly given the common co-occurrence of anxiety and depression, the trends we identified may represent physicians’ greater comfort over time with accurately diagnosing anxiety in the primary care setting, potentially for diagnoses that previously would have been classified as depression,” the investigators wrote, noting these findings align with a 2014 study by Olfson and colleagues.

Multiple factors associated with primary care mental health visits

Several variables were associated with significantly greater likelihood that a mental health concern would be addressed at a given visit, including female sex, younger age, payment via Medicare or Medicaid, and the physician being the patient’s regular physician.

“Our study demonstrated that mental health concerns were significantly more likely to be addressed in a visit with one’s usual primary care physician,” Dr. Rotenstein said. “This finding emphasizes the value of the longitudinal, supportive relationship developed in primary care for raising and addressing the full continuum of a patient’s needs, including mental health concerns.”

The investigators also observed significant associations between race/ethnicity and likelihood of addressing a mental health concern.

Compared with White patients, Black patients were 40% less likely to have a primary care visit with a mental health concern (odds ratio, 0.6; P less than .001). Similarly, Hispanic patients were 40% less likely than non-Hispanic patients to have a visit with a mental health concern (OR, 0.6; P less than .001).

“Unfortunately, our data don’t give us insight into why Black and Hispanic patients were less likely to have a mental health concern addressed in the context of a primary care visit,” Dr. Rotenstein said. “However, the data do suggest an urgent need to better understand and subsequently address the underlying causes of these disparities.”

She suggested several possible explanations, including differences in rates of screening, issues with access to care, insurance coverage disparities, and communication or cultural barriers.

Stuck in the reimbursement trap

“Primary care docs are increasingly feeling like they’re on their own in dealing with mental health problems,” said Michael Klinkman, MD, noting that the data align with his own clinical experience.

While he agreed in theory with the interventions proposed by Dr. Rotenstein and colleagues, some solutions, like billing code changes, may ultimately worsen the burden on primary care providers.

“My fear in all of this, frankly, is that we’re going to create a better sense of the need for primary care practice in general to address mental health and social care issues, and we’re just going to create a lot more work and more widget-counting around doing that,” said Dr. Klinkman, professor of family medicine and learning health sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, in an interview.

Value-based care appears to be a better solution, he said, since “we’re trying to take care of a human being, not the 1,050 pieces of that human being’s care that we’re trying to bundle up with different codes.”

A flat-fee, per-patient model, however, is unlikely to gain traction in the United States.

Dr. Klinkman has been involved in health care system reform up to the federal level, where he has encountered politicians who understood the issues but were incapable of helping because of partisan gridlock, he said. “It’s just politically near impossible to make changes in this basic health care business model.”

Policymakers advised Dr. Klinkman and his colleagues to strive for incremental changes, leaving them to grapple with increasingly complex reimbursement rules.

“We’re kind of stuck in this trap of trying to create new codes for services that we think ought to be better reimbursed,” Dr. Klinkman said. “We’re missing the person in all of this – the human being we’re trying to serve.”

The investigators and Dr. Klinkman disclosed no conflicts of interest.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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