If Primary Care Doctors Could Treat Mental Health Issues, More Americans May Get The Help They Need

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Public health advocates and doctors from the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center have begun work on an ambitious new project in which mental health experts will electronically train primary care doctors how to identify and treat mental and substance abuse disorders. The groups say the initiative will help more Americans — particularly those living in rural and medically under-served regions — get critical mental health treatment.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and General Electric’s philanthropic arm is sponsoring a new mental health clinic in New Mexico that will use the electronically coordinated arrangements, which are based on an existing University of New Mexico innovation called Project ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes). Project ECHO is a form of “telemedicine” where specialists hold weekly, virtual training sessions where “primary care doctors, nurses, physicians’ assistants, and other clinicians from multiple sites present their cases to the specialist teams and to each other, discuss new developments relating to their patients, and determine treatment,” according to a fact sheet on the project.

A combination of high costs, spotty access, and societal stigma prevents most Americans from pursuing mental health treatment, even if they desperately need it. In rural, poor, and isolated regions, the problem is even worse. Over 85 percent of areas that the federal government classifies as “mental health professional shortage areas” are in rural communities, and “only in rural America did the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health find entire counties with no practicing psychiatrists, psychologists, or social workers,” according to a 2009 report by the Center for Rural Affairs. That means Americans living in rural regions who suffer from mental illness must travel extensive distances or forgo mental care altogether.

By spreading ECHO training technique to mental health care, experts hope that primary care doctors — who aren’t always well-versed in mental health issues — will soon be able to provide rural New Mexican families with mental checkups and treatment in the convenience of their own towns. “This approach with Project ECHO will bring mental health care to patients in their home communities with local clinicians,” said Bob Corcoran, president and chairman of the GE Foundation, in a press release. “We think this will not only improve access to mental health care, but ultimately improve overall well-being and quality of life for these patients and their families.”

If the experiment proves as successful as previous efforts to manage Hepatitis C and chronic conditions through the ECHO model, RWJF and the GE Foundation hope to spread it across the country.

Private, nonprofit efforts such as this may be necessary in the absence of federal legislation with America’s broken mental health system. Although many lawmakers promised to make mental health care issues a focus after the tragic shooting massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, bipartisan mental health and community resource bills have stalled in Congress. President Obama led a day-long conference earlier this month in which he urged Americans to “bring mental illness out of the shadows” and establish resources for all Americans to get help with mental issues.