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Credit: Zach Sheldon

By the time current pre-med undergraduates attend medical school, they will be studying completely new primary health curricula, thanks to Penn's new Center for Integrated Behavioral Health in Primary Care.

Penn Medicine received a five-year, $3.7 million grant this month from the Health Resources and Services Administration to establish the new center at the Perelman School of Medicine in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, in conjunction with Department of Psychiatry and the School of Nursing. 

The project will be headed by Chyke A. Doubeni, chair and the presidential professor of Family Medicine and Community Health.

"Behavioral health" is often used interchangeably with mental health, but encompasses disorders like substance abuse. "Integrated behavioral health" essentially incorporates mental health services into a primary care model so that patients receive comprehensive services, despite the scarcity of mental health professionals in the United States.

The incoming chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Penn, Maria A. Oquendo, described how the new model addresses these shortcomings.

"The huge challenge for mental health care is that there simply aren’t enough psychiatrists to go around in this country," Oquendo said. "These are relatively new models of care that … have demonstrated that if you have a psychiatrist embedded within a system of primary care and you have case workers who are evaluating the patients to screen them for mental health problems and also doing outreach … you’re gonna be in a much better situation in terms of reaching all of the individuals who need help and also having a very robust outreach to keep those patients, those individuals, engaged."

Heather Klusaritz, an instructor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, explained that while the practice has already proven to be effective at sites like the Veterans Administration, the model is still not widely taught in medical or nursing schools.

"The science is very well established that integrated behavioral health is better for patients," Klusaritz said. "However, we’re lagging a little bit in terms of developing effective training models."

The new center will promote integrated behavioral health education throughout the country, according to Kent Bream, assistant professor of Clinical Family Medicine and Community Health.

"The practice is not new, but the fact that we’re gonna be bringing it to medical students, family medicine residents and nurse practitioner students is," Bream said. "It’s an advocacy agenda."

The center's mission has three components: identifying the current best practices in education and using them to develop curricula; disseminating the findings of that research through academic journals, webinars, professional societies and conferences; and building a community of support for people who are implementing these training models into their curricula.

"So what it will look like is really a group of experts at Penn in education who will focus on improving integrated behavioral health education nationally," Bream said. 

"Dr. Doubeni has done a spectacular job in taking the leadership on this," Oquendo said. "Usually the leadership comes from psychiatry, and I think that he’s very visionary as a family physician and the chair of family medicine who takes these initiative to put this together, and I think that’s probably very rare in this country."

Bream pointed that by the time current Penn undergraduates enter medical school they will be impacted by this grant.

"They will be learning integrated behavioral health rather than traditional behavioral health," Bream said. "This is a national center to change medical school and nursing school and residency curricula."