For years, research has linked improved health outcomes to addressing mental health alongside physical health. And for accountable care organizations (ACOs), wrapping behavioral health treatment into routine care delivery can help improve the quality of life and physical health of members.
A 2019 brief from the American Hospital Association also highlights doing so could increase patient satisfaction and reduce costs. The report concludes that integrating behavioral and primary care is an important component of delivering value-based care.
Do ACOs Struggle to Incorporate Behavioral Health?
Despite the growing body of evidence, and the overarching principle of ACOs to reduce costs through well-coordinated, person-centered care, a majority of ACOs still struggle to integrate behavioral health services.
In fact, a recent study suggests that only 17% of ACOs have implemented a comprehensive approach to the collaborative treatment of mental illness.
Below, we look at the barriers currently preventing a seamless integration of behavioral health for ACOs and some strategies to help overcome these and improve care delivery.
Improving Behavioral Health Care: What’s Holding ACOs Back?
While ACO leadership and participating providers may recognize the strong connection between behavioral health and physical health and the importance of integrating services, challenges persist, including:
· Fragmentation of services that prevent collaboration among care team members
· Shortages of behavioral health professionals and resources
· Limitations on data sharing that prevent identification of members in need and hinder care coordination
· Social determinants of health (SDOH) that can impact behavioral health needs (e.g., housing insecurity, economic instability, lack of access to social activity, and others)
· Reluctance to discuss mental health – on the part of members, due to persistent stigma; on the part of providers, it’s often attributable to a lack of pathways for treatment and referral
How to Drive Successfully Address Behavioral Health within an ACO
In general, successfully addressing behavioral health within ACO organizations requires an integrated, long-term strategy, similar to managing chronic physical conditions like asthma or diabetes.
Key components of successful behavioral health integration include:
· Enhanced access and care continuity
· Clinical information systems and decision support tools to identify and manage member populations
· Self-management support for members
· Community resources accessible to members
Below are five strategies that ACOs can use to work toward putting these tenets into practice – and achieving better health, better outcomes, and renewed hope.
Five Strategies for ACOs to Use to Improve Behavioral Health Integration
Improve Coordination of Care: Centralize Health Information & Simplify Access
Multiple providers, payment systems, and sources of member health data create barriers to strong care coordination. Further complicating the issue? Sensitive behavioral health patient information is subject to strict privacy regulations that make it even more challenging to share data.
A medical management platform that centralizes member data, aligning care teams around a member’s entire picture of health, is essential to help ACOs navigate this complexity.
Embed Behavioral Health Services into Primary Care Settings
Timely access to behavioral health services, especially amid ongoing shortages of behavioral and mental health professionals, is a big challenge that leads to delays in treatment. co-locating behavioral health specialty care in primary care offices (or co-locating primary care providers in a mental health specialty setting) is one way that ACOs have improved behavioral health delivery. if co-location isn’t possible, establishing close relationships with behavioral health practices can ease referral and management for members.
Position Care Managers as First Lines of Defense
Care managers play a pivotal role in ensuring members get the behavioral health help they need. They can build trust and engagement, coach members on the skills to self-manage their conditions, and recommend appropriate screenings and assessments for early identification and intervention.
With the right technology, ACOs can empower care managers to act as partners for members.
· Intelligent automations that lift administrative burden (e.g., documentation) so that care managers have more time to focus on relationships
· Out-of-the-box, evidence-based behavioral health screenings and assessment tools
· Built-in behavioral health care pathways to guide end-to-end care planning
Leverage Telehealth and Other Digital Capabilities to Expand Access
For many ACOs, co-locating with behavioral health professionals can be logistically or financially prohibitive. But if COVID taught us anything, it’s that accessing behavioral health professionals through telehealth is a viable treatment option for many individuals.
Consider implementing a platform with capabilities that include telehealth access and videoconferencing. Keep in mind that the simpler the user experience, the better. Look for one-link, one-click functionality that doesn’t require members to download additional software.
Partner with Community Organizations to Address Related SDOH
A spectrum of SDOH influences behavioral health outcomes, from social isolation to housing and economic instability to lack of transportation. Collaborating with community partners (e.g., transportation providers, food pantries, and support groups) is an essential way for ACOs to help members address these factors.
One key to success is to enable fast, seamless connection to these organizations and then track member usage. HELIOS helps ACOs to integrate with community partners, giving care team members full visibility into available resources. [See our ecosystem of value-based care partners here.] HELIOS also tracks and reports on whether members have connected with these partners so care teams can engage in follow-up at the right time.