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Preventive mental health care for children falls through the cracks

Posted by Claudia M Gold  October 25, 2012 12:25 PM

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The current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has an excellent article, Integrating Mental Health Care Into Pediatric Primary Care Settings, identifying the causes of this problem.

Pediatric training provides limited experience in screening or intervening for mental disorders. In contrast, child psychiatry training emphasizes the treatment of children with established psychiatric diagnoses and typically offers limited experience with children at risk for mental disorders or children whose symptoms do not reach the threshold for diagnosis. 
In other words, the current structure of the health care system does not have room for prevention. Primary care clinicians, who have the main contact with young children and families, do not have adequate education in prevention, and specialists who children are referred to when problems arise only know how to treat identified "disorders." The article further elaborates on the reasons for this situation:
Current financing structures reward treating established diagnoses, not providing preventive services, because payment for visits, with few exceptions, requires a DSM-IV diagnosis.
This problem is currently being addressed in the refinement of the DC: 0-3, a classification of disorders of infancy and early childhood that recognizes the significant role of relationships in problems in this age group. If the DC:0-3 is "cross-walked" with a DSM diagnosis, then reimbursement is possible.  That word "disorder" is still part of the conversation, but it is a step in the right direction.

Another problem intrinsic to the system is that for billing purposes the child is the identified patient, making work with the family challenging.
Research on the treatment of child mental health conditions has strongly indicated the benefit of treating the child and the caregiver as “the patient,” but public and private plans frequently do not pay for family-focused treatment... the need to identify the child as the patient makes family-focused interventions difficult to support financially; likewise, payment for caregiver-only or collateral sessions is lacking.
Another problem identified is the lack of financial support for collaborative care. In my work with families in the Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program at Newton Wellesley Hospital I speak regularly with a child's primary care doctor. This is an essential part of care, as that person often has a longstanding ongoing relationship with the child and family and knows them well. In addition, if I refer a family on to more specialized care, such as with a psychiatrist, it is important that I fill them in on the work I have been doing with the family. Working as a team we can hold the family through a difficult time, and get development going in a healthy direction. I spend a lot of time on the phone because it is good care, and I know that many of my pediatrician and child psychiatry colleagues do the same. Yet none of this care is reimbursed.

The article offers this ray of hope:
The Affordable Care Act (Public Law 111-148) requires mental and behavioral health coverage in an essential benefit package at parity with medical benefits. This could incentivize the integration of care.
Of course for this to happen, President Obama must be reelected.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »


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