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White House recognizes School of Medicine’s Integrated Behavioral Health Program

The innovative program provides accessible whole-person care while training future health professionals
man talks with physician in an exam room

The Integrated Behavioral Health Program at Texas A&M University School of Medicine earned prestigious recognition from the White House earlier this month. As one of just four institutions in the nation to receive a Mental and Behavioral Health Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), this honor recognizes the program’s role in enhancing and broadening mental health care across America.

“These actions address key research priorities and move us closer to a future where every American has access to the best available care when and where they need it,” states a June 3rd White House press release.

The Integrated Behavioral Health Program provides holistic team-based care with interdisciplinary faculty and staff including licensed psychologists, licensed clinical social workers and board-certified family physicians. The program also has interdisciplinary clinical training initiatives that have included family medicine and psychiatry resident physicians, medical students, doctoral level psychology trainees, social work trainees, and pharmacy interns and residents providing behavioral health services collaboratively within primary care. These teams work together and learn from each other within the Texas A&M Health Family Care clinics in Bryan and Navasota.

“What’s really unique about our program is that the behavioral health providers learn the perspective of medicine and how to actually understand the biological and the physical health complaints of individuals. They’re usually siloed in their behavioral health services and are not thinking about that as much,” said Meredith Williamson, PhD, clinical associate professor and director of behavioral health and wellbeing at the School of Medicine. “Then, vice versa—the physicians are actually able to consider what may be underlying some of the physical causes of their concerns, or when a patient shows up with behavioral health needs.”

Integrated behavioral health is a rapidly emerging approach to medicine that aims to destigmatize mental health care while improving access to services. This is especially pressing in Texas, which has the nation’s largest rural population and currently ranks last in access to mental health care. For people living in rural areas, a primary care provider might be the only health professional they have access to see. If this provider is equipped to identify behavioral health concerns and can connect their patients to quick, convenient services, then many mental health needs are less likely to go unmet. Additionally, accessing mental health care services within a primary care clinic may be perceived as less stigmatizing.

“The idea is that, if you live in a rural or underserved community, you can drive in one time to see your doctor and get all your needs met,” Williamson said. “Also, the way it’s presented is more like, ‘Hey, we have a behavioral health consultant we work with just like we work with pharmacists or our x-ray tech,’ and so the culture is different. The culture is we’re all working together to improve your overall health.”

In the Texas A&M Health Family Care clinic, behavioral health counselors are on call to provide physician consultations. If during a patient visit the physician identifies a need for mental health services, the physician can connect with a counselor while the patient is still in the room. Usually, the patient can see a counselor the same day, or they can schedule an appointment before they leave the clinic. These counselors can also engage patients in health coaching for concerns such as weight management, sleep, chronic pain or tobacco use.

Pharmacists and pharmacy students are also available for consultation as part of team-based visits that occur twice a week. They review patient records and help the resident physicians understand if there could be medication side effects or if there are more beneficial options the physician might not have considered.

Recent data collected by the program has indicated that family medicine resident physicians would like to have integrated behavioral health in their future primary care practices if they are able.

“We really believe in what we’re doing and the mission of increasing access and decreasing stigma while providing the best care possible,” Williamson said. “We plan to expand our training opportunities to allow, ideally, anyone in our community who wants to be able to get all their care in one place to have the opportunity to do so, and to help prepare our physicians to be ready to provide that as well.”

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