Study Underscores Importance of Primary Care Physicians in Treating COVID-19-Related Mental and Behavioral Health Concerns

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Monday, July 12, 2021

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Julie Hirschhorn
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Study Underscores Importance of Primary Care Physicians in
Treating COVID-19-Related Mental and Behavioral Health Concerns

WASHINGTON, DC — Primary care physicians provided a majority of the care for depression, anxiety, serious mental illness, and other mental health needs prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, with almost a third of the care for serious mental illness and a quarter of prescriptions for serious mental illness taking place in a primary care setting.

New research by the Robert Graham Center, titled “Assessing Primary Care Contributions to Behavioral Health: A Cross-sectional Study Using Medical Expenditure Panel Survey(pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov),” was published in the June 2021 issue of the Journal of Primary Care and Community Health. The study assessed primary care contributions to behavioral health using historic Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data (2016-2018), particularly as it relates to addressing unmet mental health care needs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings show nearly four out of 10 visits for depression or anxiety and any mental illness are to primary care physicians. Compared to psychiatrists and subspecialists, the proportion of visits to primary care physicians was higher for patients with a diagnosis of depression or anxiety.

“The pandemic has profoundly impacted the mental health of the public. With nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population experiencing mental stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this research underscores the importance of supporting access to primary care—both during and after public health emergencies,” said lead author, Anuradha Jetty, MPH, health services researcher at the Robert Graham Center.

The research also found primary care physicians also provide over one-third of the care and write a quarter of the prescribed medications for patients with severe mental illness. These findings were consistent with previous studies that showed primary care physicians provide a substantial number of mental health services in ambulatory settings.

The study emphasized that an underfunded mental health system and a strained primary care workforce could exacerbate the unmet need for mental health care. However, the authors explain investment in primary care practices is imperative to address the mental illness burden stemming from the public health crisis.

“Primary care physicians are well-equipped with the training and expertise needed to treat mental illness. Our findings are especially timely within the context of a shifting health care landscape, where there will likely be a surge of patients seeking treatment,” said Jetty. “Primary care physicians, who often have strong relationships with patients before the onset of mental illness and a deep understanding of social context and community factors, will be critical in treating unmet mental health needs—now—and for years to come.”

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About the Robert Graham Center

The Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care works to improve individual and population health by enhancing the delivery of primary care. The Center staff generates and analyzes evidence that brings a family medicine and primary care perspective to health policy deliberations at local, state, and national levels.

Founded in 1999, the Robert Graham Center is an independent research unit affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The information and opinions contained in research from the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or policy of the AAFP.