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Combining mental and physical care saves lives
Travis Sammon and Patricia von Riedl
Travis Sammon, supervisor of Deschutes County’s Assertive Community Treatment and Patricia von Riedl, peer support specialist, Deschutes Behavioral Health.

Feb. 14, 2013, (Bend) — Deaths in Deschutes County reduced dramatically for people with mental illness. New health center drops deaths from one per month to less than one a year.

People with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than others, largely due to treatable medical conditions. This is a stark reality that tugged at Deschutes County mental health care providers. Like many people with mental illness, their clients suffered from high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes, and heart disease and are at high risk stroke.

"Often when I saw mental health care patients they wouldn't come back for follow-up appointments. Now they are."  ~ Tina Busby, M.D.

"Many people with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, can't manage or don't recognize physical health issues. It’s particularly difficult when mental and physical health services are offered at different locations."

Now, though, as part of the Pacific Community Solutions coordinated care organization, a new clinic has been formed that offers both physical and mental health care at the new “Health Annex.” The Annex also has peer support specialists who help patients navigate the health care system. As a result, many are receiving primary care for the first time in their lives.

"Patients are more comfortable in their mental health care setting. Often when I saw mental health care patients they wouldn't come back for follow-up appointments. Now they are," says Tina Busby, M.D., who is part of the team at the Health Annex.

One of Busby’s patients was a woman who had signs of schizoaffective and bi-polar disorders – both illnesses characterized by severe mood problems.

Through the coordination that happens at the Annex, they found that her issue was actually Graves' disease, an autoimmune illness that can cause or worsen mood issues. The patient is receiving treatment for Graves' and her mental health issues have subsided.

The outcome of this combined care is already beginning to show. Prior to the new program, about one person with severe mental illness died every month in Deschutes County. There has been only one such death in the past 14 months.