Integrating Mental Health in Safety-net Primary Care: A Five-year Observational Study on Visits in a County Health System

Academic Article


  • Background: Beginning in 2010, Los Angeles County Departments of Health Services and Mental Health collaborated to increase access to effective mental health care. The Mental Health Integration Program (MHIP) embedded behavioral health specialists in primary care clinics to deliver brief, problem-focused treatments, and psychiatric consultation support for primary care-prescribed psychotropic medications. Objective: The aim was to compare primary care visits associated with psychiatric diagnoses before and after MHIP implementation. Methods: This retrospective cohort study (2009-2014) examined 62,945 patients from 8 safety-net clinics that implemented MHIP in a staggered manner in Los Angeles. Patients' primary care visits (n=695,354) were either associated or not with a previously identified or "new" (defined as having no diagnosis within the prior year) psychiatric diagnosis. Multilevel regression models used MHIP implementation to predict odds of visits being associated with psychiatric diagnoses, controlling for time, clinic, and patient characteristics. Results: 9.4% of visits were associated with psychiatric diagnoses (6.4% depression, 3.1% anxiety, <1% alcohol, and substance use disorders). Odds of visits being associated with psychiatric diagnoses were 9% higher [95% confidence interval (CI)=1.05-1.13; P<0.0001], and 10% higher for diagnoses that were new (CI=1.04-1.16; P=0.002), after MHIP implementation than before. This appeared to be fueled by increased visits for depression post-MHIP (odds ratio=1.11; CI=1.06-1.15; P<0.0001). Conclusions: MHIP implementation was associated with more psychiatric diagnoses coded in safety-net primary care visits. Scaling up this effort will require greater attention to the notable differences across patient populations and languages, as well as the markedly low coding of alcohol and substance use services in primary care.
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  • Medical Care  Journal
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    Author List

  • Leung LB; Benitez CT; Dorsey C; Mahajan AP; Hellemann GS; Whelan F; Park NJ; Braslow JT