Helping Individuals with Serious Mental Illness Get Access to Quality, Affordable Primary Care

Dr. Ali Shahcheraghi, primary care physician, Neighborhood Health (left), and Jonathan Lamptey, Administrative Assistant, Gartlan Center, Community Service Board (right).

Individuals with serious mental illness (SMI) are more likely to experience chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension that often go untreated and unmanaged. When these illnesses overlap, there are deadly consequences: individuals with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than the general public.

Neighborhood Health, formerly known as Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services, Inc. (ANHSI), is a federally qualified health center and NVHF grantee that has found a novel approach to helping these individuals get consistent, affordable primary care. Through a collaboration between Neighborhood Health and three Community Service Boards (CSBs), publicly funded mental health facilities, patients who come to the CSBs for mental health treatment can also see primary care doctors on site.

“Navigating the health care system can be challenging for anyone, but it’s even harder for people with serious mental illness. Some of our patients haven’t seen a primary care doctor in many years. And by catching them early, we are stopping them from relying on emergency room visits for preventable complications,” said Dr. Basim Khan, Interim Executive Director and Medical Director of Neighborhood Health.

So how does it work?

At-risk patients are flagged for treatment when they come in for case management. For example, when patients are first referred to their local CSBs for initial mental health assessments, they are given routine blood tests, which can detect elevated sugar levels or high cholesterol.

“The program lets patients take care of everything at one visit. They don’t have to find transportation to multiple appointments, making it more likely that they will get those conditions treated and follow up on their doctor’s recommendations,” said Dr. Ali Shahcheraghi, a Neighborhood Health primary care physician who sees patients in Fairfax County. The program also operates in the city of Alexandria and Arlington County.

While making it easier for the patient, this approach also eases communication among health care providers and can even improve care. When a specialist and a primary care doctor are in the same location, they can communicate quickly about the patient’s condition. Health care complications can be caught early and even prevented. For example, side effects from medications for mental illness, such as increased blood pressure, are far more likely to be caught when the case manager can quickly speak with doctors.

For Dr. Khan, it comes down to helping patients live better.

“This program enables patients to lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. Serious mental illness can be truly disabling and cause a lot of hardship—not just for patients, but for their families, friends, and communities,” said Dr. Khan. “These services provide a degree of stability and hope that really improves their lives.”

Photo Credit (thumbnail of hospital room): Jennifer Morrow via Flickr