Mental and behavioral health providers should be included in meaningful use

By Jeff Rowe
12:47 AM

Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy (D-RI) and Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA) introduced the Health Information Technology Extension for Behavioral Health Services Act of 2010 late last week.

If passed, the piece of legislation would allow behavioral health, mental health and substance abuse treatment providers to participate in the federal stimulus program for meaningful use of EHRs. I don’t know when the bill would be voted on by Congress, but it needs to be passed, and with bipartisan support.

These providers were not included in the HITECH Act, so the expansion would correct one of the flaws of the EHR adoption program. If we want widespread EHR adoption across the country, we need to include as many providers as possible. But there’s another more compelling reason, which can be found in statistics from such a number of trusted organizations.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in any given year an estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older, which translates to approximately one in four adults, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. If you use the 2004 U.S. Census residential population estimate for ages 18 and older, the number of those with a diagnosable mental disorder is an astounding 57.7 million people. Serious mental illness is concentrated in about 6 percent of the population, or one in 17.

Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in this country for those aged 15 to 44, and many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at any time. About 45 percent of those suffering from mental disorder have two or more disorders, and the severity is correlated to comorbidity.

Those are sobering numbers. NIMH says we underestimate the impact of mental illness as it relates to health and productivity. A global study spearheaded by three large organizations including the World Health Organization, reports that mental illness is responsible for more than 15 percent of the burden of disease in established market economies. NIMH points out that this percent is more than the disease burden caused by all cancers.

While substance abuse has declined across various substances, it’s still an issue that is impacting our society. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a part of the Dept. of Health and Human Services, has a lot of granular data in this area. I just looked at one stat in the area of alcohol abuse. According to SAMHSA’s 2007 National Survey on Drug Use & Health, conducted by the 7.8 percent, or 19.3 million, persons aged 12 or older needed treatment for their alcohol problem in the previous year. That’s a lot of people. There are even more people who need treatment but are never identified.

So think of how EHRs can help. Think of the value that interoperable EHRs can bring to behavioral and mental health providers and substance abuse providers in their treatment plans. When you can coordinate care with primary care physicians more easily, especially with regard to prescriptions, everyone benefits, including society as a whole.

This bill is a no-brainer in terms of being beneficial for everyone. For those suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, it could mean the difference between the right treatment and wrong treatment, improved or decreased quality of life, even life and death.