Connecting the head to the body

By Ted Townsend / Guest Column

I’m the first to admit that I know very little about behavioral health, or as it was referred to in my youth, mental health. I don’t know about psychiatry or psychology, counseling, pharmaceuticals or episodes.

I do know about people and a little bit about life. I liked what I read from a leading physician executive from Kaiser Permanente who said that in health care, we are finally “reconnecting the head to the body.” For some reason in American health care over the past several generations, behavioral health patient care has become disengaged from providing care for those same patients’ medical needs.

Patients who come to UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s Hospital for medical needs often see cadres of different medical and surgical providers, multiple consults, specialists, therapists and others. The behavioral health patient, on the other hand, often sees only a single set of providers. They are seen in separate units and rarely do providers from one side of the house cross to the other.

We are not alone in this format. Every American health care organization I’ve ever known has had this same dichotomy. When we took a group of board members and physicians to Great Britain some years back, we couldn’t even locate the behavioral health population. They were cared for in separate facilities that were more like the state hospitals that used to be much more prevalent in Iowa and around the country for decades.

Behavioral health in this country has gone through a transformation in two phases over the past 30 years. First was the phase of reconnecting such patients back to society. Care was moved extensively out of segregated state facilities into more community settings where individuals with behavioral health challenges could be reintegrated into the world because it was better care for them and it was better for all of us to recognize these people were still part of our communities and capable of contributing positively.

The second phase seems to be occurring now, where the medical profession and the health care industry are realizing that if we are to better coordinate patient care, provide better platforms for improving the health of both individuals and entire populations and reduce costs and add value versus volume, then we need to reconnect the head to the body to keep people healthy. We need to reintegrate the care of medical and behavioral needs into more of the same settings.

As the largest provider of behavioral health services in the state of Iowa, UnityPoint Health has been on this journey for some years. In Cedar Rapids, we took a major new step in that direction as of Jan. 1, bringing Abbe Health – our region’s largest provider of outpatient and community-based behavioral health – into our UnityPoint Health family. The intent is simple: to work together to offer better, more coordinated care in a more cost effective and holistic fashion for all of us.

Another thing I’ve learned over my 30 years in the health care industry is that behavioral health challenges are not the exception, but the rule. Over a lifetime virtually all of us have at some time struggled with a behavioral health issue, be it depression or anxiety or something less common, that has impacted our general health and most likely that of our family. We are now seeing now a desire by providers and patients to recognize the need to look for and help those with these problems much earlier on and in often gentler ways.

Ted Townsend is president and CEO of UnityPoint Health Cedar Rapids.