Medical researchers work together to improve South Carolina’s health

Integrated Behavioral Health Symposium examines the way mental health services are delivered

A person suffering from mild depression loses his train of thought — and forgets to take a pill needed for a medical condition such as high blood pressure. The person’s hypertension leads to a stroke, which in turn causes the person to become more depressed.  The person’s physical and mental health worsen to the point that the situation becomes critical.   

It’s a scenario some in the medical profession know all too well and one of the reasons why people suffering from a mental illness are more likely to die from medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and infectious diseases.

One solution, according to psychiatrist Joseph Parks, is to rearrange the way hospitals and health clinics deliver care.

“Too many times, we expect the patients to coordinate their own coverage — and important things get missed that shouldn’t,” says Parks, medical director for the National Council of Behavioral Health.

Parks estimates that only 1 in 5 patients who are referred to a psychiatrist by a primary care physician will keep their appointment. That means 80 percent of patients with a known mental health problem are left untreated.

If someone trained in mental or behavioral health were in practice with a primary care doctor, patients with anxiety, depression or substance abuse could receive treatment straight away.

Changing the way medical professionals work together is the message Parks will deliver when he gives the keynote address at the Integrated Behavioral Health Symposium spearheaded by the College of Social Work.

The symposium, co-sponsored by the Arnold School of Public Health, the School of Medicine Columbia, the School of Medicine Greenville, the College of Pharmacy and the College of Nursing, will start at 1 p.m. Monday (Feb. 12) at the USC Alumni Center.

Other speakers include social work professor Christina Andrews, who has researched different ways states are coordinating care of people with drug addictions, and Meera Narasimhan, the chair of the neuropsychiatry and behavioral science department at the School of Medicine Columbia and special adviser to President Harris Pastides on health innovations and economic development.

Narasimhan’s work focuses on telemedicine that allows a psychiatrist in Columbia to “see” a patient in a rural area.

“Health care delivery via telehealth is an innovative way of being able to address health care needs that exist within our state, to meet the shortage of providers, improve access to affordable quality care in rural counties, a much-needed service for the citizens of our great state,” Narasimhan says.  

Narasimhan says more than 30,000 patients in South Carolina have been treated by physicians, nurses and social workers via teleconferencing.  

It may be one solution the University of South Carolina can provide to address the growing shortage of mental health specialists. Few medical students are going into the field of psychiatry — where the average age is currently 55 compared with ages in the 30s for physicians in internal medicine, obstetrics and pediatrics. The shortage comes at a time when the demand for psychiatric care has increased.

The symposium also will feature a panel made up of Sarah Gehlert, dean of the College of Social Work; John Magill, director of the S.C. Department of Mental Health; Pete Liggett, deputy director of the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services; Sara Goldsby, interim director of the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services; Rick Foster, senior adviser to the S.C. Hospital Association; and Katherine Plunkett with the S.C. Primary Care Association.

“We’re looking to see how we can have a conversation at the university-level as faculty and students to work with state legislators, government officials, as well as providers,” says Teri Browne, social work professor and symposium organizer.

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