Integrated Healthcare a Boon for Employees and Employers

By Barbara Scott, President and CEO

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You may have heard the phrase "Integrated Healthcare" tossed around, but don’t know exactly what it means. It’s a term used within the healthcare industry for a paradigm shift in how we deliver care: treating the entire person rather than just a set of separate symptoms or challenges.

It’s a global trend that has also been referred to as “coordinated care” or “comprehensive care.” But in practice, it means associating disciplines that have traditionally been kept apart in healthcare delivery silos, such as primary medical care (e.g. your family doctor), behavioral health, substance abuse and more.

"Whole health" might be a better name, since it lets patients know they can receive help for multiple, often interrelated issues such as opioid addiction, mental illness, abuse/neglect, diabetes and obesity, homelessness and unemployment. Statistics show people dealing with manifold challenges like these have life expectancies decades shorter than average.

Organizations such as my own, Aspire Indiana, are helping pioneer integrated healthcare in Indiana, bringing much-needed collaborative care to our most vulnerable Hoosiers. In addition to our six clinics in Central Indiana, we also run myriad support programs across much of the state that help with social determinants of health such as housing and unemployment.

At some of our locations, patients can receive a physical check-up, substance abuse counseling and behavioral health therapy, and even get help finding a job and pick up their prescription drugs from the pharmacy -- all under one roof.

As evidence has piled up on the benefits of integrated healthcare, more companies are adopting this approach in the benefit packages they offer. What employers are finding is that not only is it a boon for their employees, but also to their organization as a whole.

Businesses embracing the integrated healthcare approach are seeing a healthier, more stable workforce with fewer absences and a team of employees who are engaged, productive and stay in their jobs longer.

"In light of rising health care spending, benefits are evolving from simply providing coverage to fully integrated care coordination with one-on-one advocacy," said Kevin Cassidy, president of Employer Solutions for Blue Cross and Blue Shield in a recent article.

"More employers are looking for plans that further integrate pharmacy and behavioral health programs in an effort to look at employee health more holistically."

Similarly, a recent study by Cigna found positive health outcomes for individuals in integrated care programs and lower medical costs for employers -- an average of $193 annually for each covered person, and $9,792 per year for those with a specialty condition such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis.

"A person’s physical and mental health are connected, and health care is best delivered – and produces the best outcomes – when it is connected as well," said Scott Josephs, M.D., national medical officer at Cigna.

While most people are quick to see a physician for a medical complaint, there remains a stigma associated with mental illness and substance abuse that leaves them less likely to seek help. By coordinating care under one roof, it allows for easier, secure sharing of private medical information and collaboration between healthcare professionals of different disciplines, who work to address more than just the issue that first brought someone into the clinic.

For example, at Aspire Indiana a common practice is for a nurse practitioner, psychologist, social worker and Life Skills Instructor (LSI) to participate in integrated case meetings where they sit down together to look at how the physical, emotional and social needs of a particular person intersect and how to meet them.

Aside from studies and statistics, though, the real-world benefits of integrated healthcare are easy to see every day.

Recently, an Aspire patient was meeting with her life skills instructor and reported that she had not been feeling well lately, hampering her in achieving her goals. The LSI was able to literally walk her a few dozen paces to see a medical expert at the in-house Aspire Indiana Health primary care wing, a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC).

Based on their assessment, the woman was immediately taken to an emergency room, where she was soon admitted to the hospital in critical condition. She underwent emergency stomach surgery that potentially saved her life.

As Charles Duhigg, The Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and author of "The Power of Habit" and "Smarter Faster Better" says, "Innovation is taking old ideas -- things that people already knew put together in new ways. It's the process that encourages people to look at what they already know and try and put things in a new way that creates innovation."

This "whole person" model sounds like common sense, and yet it is transforming the way Hoosiers, and their employers, think about healthcare.

This article first appeared in Inside Indiana Business.