Local Opinion: Arizona is making strides in 'whole person' health care

Local Opinion: Arizona is making strides in 'whole person' health care

El Rio Cherrybell Health Center

The Cherrybell Health Center is a new facility for El Rio Health, which serves those with and without health insurance through a sliding fee scale.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

With continued reports of health care’s rising costs, the battle against the opioid epidemic and the effort to build the work force, it’s understandable why some may feel pessimistic about the future of health care in Arizona.

But those of us who work in the health-care field see progress, ongoing opportunity and the chance to build a truly excellent system of care.

Certainly those of us who serve patients, and who have been patients, have seen the difficulties of an in-cohesive health-care system — physicians may not communicate with each other or share electronic health records, care may not be coordinated across specialists and co-occurring diseases that aggravate each other may not considered.

Multiply those difficulties if you are part of a vulnerable population, perhaps living on a low income with mental illness, substance use disorder or a chronic physical health condition.

We believe that patients in all population categories realize better health outcomes when health- care services are integrated. That’s why many of us have been on a path toward combining physical and behavioral health care within our organizations and practices. But to make a real impact we knew we needed others to join us.

In October 2018, Medicaid in Arizona made a big move in that direction. The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) moved most members into integrated health-care plans that serve the whole person — physical health, mental health, substance abuse, oral health, primary care services and specialty care — and an approach to care for patients holistically.

Early on, we’re already seeing improvements in health outcomes. Now we use collaborative teams of primary care and behavioral health specialists to work together to ensure that patient care is coordinated, complete, and balanced. Most are using electronic health records and other mechanisms to communicate across providers.

The patients we serve report that they are more invested in their own health-care choices. We are moving the needle away from “reactive” health care to preventative care. And the more disease we can prevent, the more affordable health care becomes.

Harder to measure, but perhaps even more critical, is the fact that health-care integration reduces the stigma that still surrounds mental health.

Teaching patients to talk about their mental health as a mitigating factor of physical health reduces the fear of judgment, opens the lines of communication among families and ultimately improves our ability to treat the whole person.

As providers, we support whole-person integrated health care and Arizona’s move toward it. Within the complicated world of health care, it’s a move in the right direction.

Nancy Johnson, RN, Ph.D. is the CEO of El Rio Health. Dennis Regnier is CEO of CODAC Health. Susie Huhn is the CEO of Casa de los Ninos. Michael Tacke is CEO for Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital.

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