President's Perspective: Connecting the Head to the Body with Ted Townsend

by -

I’m the first to admit that I know very little about behavioral health, or as we said it in my youth, mental health. I know no psychiatry or psychology. I don’t know anything about counseling or pharmaceuticals, or episodes. What I do know about is people, a little bit about life, and I liked what I read the other day from a leading physician executive from Kaiser Permanente when he said that in healthcare, we are finally “reconnecting the head to the body.” What he was referencing was that for some reason in American healthcare over the past several generations behavioral health patient care has become almost entirely disengaged from providing care for those same peoples’ medical needs. 

We’ve seen at UnityPoint Health - St. Luke’s Hospital. Patients who come to us for medical needs often see cadres of different medical and surgical providers, multiple consults, specialists, therapists, and others. Lots of ists. 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. Every American healthcare organization I’ve ever know 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 here in Iowa and around the country for decades.

Behavioral Health in this country has gone through a transformation over the past thirty years and, at least from the vantage point of this virtual layperson, it has gone through two phases. 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 we could re-integrate individuals with behavioral health challenges into the world both because it was better care for them and because 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 healthcare industry are realizing that if we are to rationalize our healthcare system, if we are to better coordinate patient care, to provide better platforms for improving the health of both individuals and entire populations, if we are to reduce costs and add value versus volume, then we needed to reconnect the head to the body in how we approach keeping people healthy. We need to reintegrate the care of medical and behavioral needs into more of the same settings and episodes because we are not dealing with two different patients, but one whole person. 

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

I say all of us because another thing I’ve learned over those thirty years 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. What we are seeing now is a desire by providers and patients to recognize that we need to be looking for and helping with these problems much earlier on and in often gentler ways that can help us avoid both more serious problems in the future as well as improve our general health along the way. 

Opportunities in healthcare don’t get much better than this, to help people in better ways by finding ways to simply work better together. We welcome this opportunity and all of the AbbeHealth family into our UnityPoint Health family. We fully intend to continue to serve all community residents in need, regardless of hospital or physician affiliation, and we fully expect to do it better than ever together than we have done apart.