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One of the stated aims of the Affordable Care Act is to tear down the walls that separate different medical practices. Patients should be able to see their dentist and dermatologist or doctors and psychologists all at the same place. The hope is that by bringing the various disciplines together, patients can receive better and perhaps less expensive care.
Kristian Foden-Vencil, of Oregon Public Broadcasting, visited a doctor's office that brought in psychologists to see if the premise works.
KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: Doctors often have to deal stomachaches and migraines that end up stemming from mental, rather than physical problems. The traditional response is to refer the patient to a psychologist. But, says Dr. Robin Henderson of the St. Charles Health System in Bend, very few patients follow up that referral. They don't want the stigma of seeing psychologist she says, so they procrastinate and get sicker.
In an effort to solve the problem, St. Charles has been running a pilot project that puts psychologists in doctors' offices.
DR. ROBIN HENDERSON: You're sitting on the table, in comes your psychologist to sit next to you. It changes the stigma dynamic.
FODEN-VENCIL: Take the case of 17-year-old Tyson Engel. Back in the spring of 2011, he was snowboarding on Mt. Batchelor when he fell so hard, he cracked his helmet. His mom, Jennifer Engel, says she soon began to notice dramatic changes.
JENNIFER ENGEL: Tyson talked about headaches for a while and he could not sleep. He was always on, on the run, not eating very much.
FODEN-VENCIL: Over a period of several months, she took him to the ER five times. There was a three-day hospital stay and she tried several doctors' offices around town but the symptoms weren't improving. Eventually, she ended up at the Mosaic Medical Clinic, where pediatrician Kristi Nix worked closely with psychologist Sondra Marshall.
Nix treated Tyson for his physical brain injuries, while Marshall helped him pick-up everyday coping skills to deal with symptoms like memory loss and sensory overload. In fact, Marshall says it wasn't just Tyson who needed help, his parents needed it too.
SONDRA MARSHALL: Sometimes there would be too much talk.
MARSHALL: And they would talk and talk and talk. And he would get frustrated.
FODEN-VENCIL: Tyson says she also gave them clear strategies to deal with his impulse control, like the time he was going to an appointment with his mother and ran across a busy street to see a shiny new bike.
TYSON ENGEL: I would want to go see a bike. I would think to myself, is now the right time, is it now the wrong time. How badly do I want to see the bike? Is it that important? Is it not important? And just by asking myself questions, I'd get better at, you know, the certain situations that I was into.
FODEN-VENCIL: Henderson says Tyson's issues are complex. More common examples at Mosaic involve children getting upset tummies or headaches because they're being bullied or because their parents are getting divorced.
HENDERSON: These are short, brief interventional strategies designed to help parents and the practitioners and the children themselves deal with the things that they're coming into a pediatrician's office for that aren't necessarily treatable with an antibiotic.
FODEN-VENCIL: Mosaic Doctor Kristi Nix says the pilot project has lifted a burden off her shoulders.
DR. KRISTI NIX: It's not satisfying as a physician to say, I don't know what's wrong with you, get out of my office. Right? Like, that's not OK and it's not good health care.
FODEN-VENCIL: The idea of having a psychologist drop in to talk to a patient for 20 minutes, instead of setting up a schedule of weekly visits is a substantial change. Henderson says St. Charles has had problems hiring psychologists.
HENDERSON: It's not worked for some of them. Initially, especially when we were first starting out, we had a couple of folks who just couldn't manage the model. It takes a different type of personality. And we find the folks coming right out of school, fresh, who've been trained in health psychology models, you have to have that type of personality that wants to engage in team-based care.
FODEN-VENCIL: Quite apart from hiring issues, the question is: Does having psychologists and doctors working together save any money? Henderson says Mosaic looked at 400 patients over about two years.
HENDERSON: And the average was a drop of about $860 over the course of a year in the patient's medical costs. Now, that included a minor increase in their pharmacy costs. But even with that increase, the total medical-spent was going down.
FODEN-VENCIL: St. Charles is doing a much longer study to see if the savings are real. But several other health systems around the state, as well as in Colorado and Massachusetts, are already trying this idea.
For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Bend.