Study Emphasizes Primary Care’s Crucial Role in Combatting COVID-19-related Mental Illness

Compared to psychiatrists and subspecialists, the proportion of visits to primary care was higher for patients with depression or anxiety and any mental illness in a new cross-sectional study.

New research showed primary care physicians (PCPs) provided a significant amount of care for patients with mental health disorders prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and sheds light on the capacity of primary care to address mental health needs post-pandemic.

“The pandemic has profoundly impacted the mental health of the public. With nearly 80 percent of the US 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, Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, Washington, DC, in a press release.

Jetty and colleagues assessed primary care contributions to behavioral health using 2016-2018 Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data, particularly as it related to addressing unmet mental health care needs because of the pandemic.

There were more than 394 000 office-based visits in the 2016 to 2018 analysis sample.

The results showed that nearly 4 out of 10 visits for depression or anxiety and any mental illness (AMI) were to PCPs. Researchers also found that PCPs provided over one-third of the care and wrote a quarter of the prescribed medications for patients with severe mental illness (SMI).

Compared to psychiatrists and subspecialists, the proportion of visits to PCPs was higher for patients with depression or anxiety as well as AMI, according to the study.

“These findings are consistent with previous studies that showed that primary care physicians provide a substantial number of mental health services in ambulatory settings and write higher number of prescription medications for several types of mental health conditions,” wrote authors.

“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 in the press release. “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.”

The study also emphasized the importance of investing in primary care practices to further address pandemic-related mental illness, especially given what the researchers characterized as an underfunded mental health system and a strained primary care workforce.

Reference: Jetty A, Petterson S, Westfall JM, Jabbarpour Y. Assessing primary care contributions to behavioral health: A cross-sectional study using Medical Expenditure Panel Survey. J Prim Care Community Health. 2021;12:21501327211023871.