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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

Collaborative Care Could Help Reduce Disparities in Mental Health Treatment

Mental health care after trauma is critical, especially for people in racial and ethnic minority groups who are at higher risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can be impairing, leading to stress or fear in everyday situations that harms a person’s health and well-being. Finding effective PTSD care is challenging in general, but systemic disparities and limited access make it even harder for people from racial and ethnic minority groups.


Mental Health Treatment

A new study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health marks a step toward reducing disparities in mental health care. It found that a collaborative care intervention delivered in real-world settings significantly reduced PTSD symptoms among patients from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.


How did the researchers treat PTSD symptoms?


Collaborative care is a team-based, patient-centered approach to treating mental disorders in acute and primary care settings. Health care providers work as a team and with the patient to provide comprehensive care tailored to the patient’s needs and preferences. In a “stepped” method, providers systematically and flexibly adjust the level of care based on the patient's condition and response to treatment.


While previous studies have shown that collaborative care can reduce PTSD symptoms, few studies have examined its ability to address the unique mental health needs and disparities experienced by racial and ethnic minority groups. This study, which had support from the NIH Common Fund’s Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory , is one of the first multisite studies to compare collaborative care among White and non-White trauma patients.


What did the researchers do in this study?


Douglas Zatzick, M.D. , senior investigator on the project, and Khadija Abu, B.A., lead author on the paper, collaborated with colleagues at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Harborview Trauma Center. They analyzed data from a large clinical trial of stepped collaborative care conducted at 25 trauma centers across the United States.


People who were 18 years and older, seeking care for an injury, and experiencing a high level of distress based on a validated PTSD measure were eligible to participate. All participants self-reported their race and ethnicity. More than half (350 patients) identified as Hispanic or non-White (Asian, American Indian, Black, Native Hawaiian or Alaskan, Pacific Islander, or another race), including those endorsing more than one race. The other 285 patients identified as non-Hispanic White.


Patients were randomized to receive either enhanced usual care or stepped collaborative care.


  • Enhanced usual care: Patients received care as usual at the trauma center, which included PTSD screenings, a baseline evaluation, and follow-up interviews. The enhanced aspect was that nurses were notified if a patient's PTSD score was above a specified threshold.

  • Stepped collaborative care: The intervention consisted of enhanced usual care plus additional follow-up, including proactive care management, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication. Care was tailored to each patient’s specific postinjury needs and treatment preferences. Patients who showed ongoing PTSD symptoms received stepped-up care in the form of medication adjustments, additional therapy, or both.


Patients rated their PTSD symptoms at intake and 3, 6, and 12 months after their injury. They also completed measures of depression symptoms, alcohol use problems, and physical function at intake and at the three post-injury time points. For each racial and ethnic group, analyses compared scores between patients who received enhanced usual care versus the stepped collaborative care intervention.


What did the researchers find in the study?


Six months after their injury, Hispanic or non-White patients who received collaborative care reported significantly lower PTSD symptoms compared to those who received usual care (with no difference at 3- or 12-months post-injury). The researchers note that most post-injury care occurred within the first 6 months, possibly contributing to a lack of significant effects at 3 months and a drop off of effects at 12 months.


In contrast, no significant group difference was found for non-Hispanic White patients. Those who received usual care or collaborative care showed a similar change in PTSD symptoms at all time points, indicating that the intervention was no more effective than usual care for White patents in this study.


There was no change in self-reported depression symptoms, alcohol use problems, or physical function for either group, regardless of whether they received usual care or collaborative care. This suggests that the intervention specifically helps with PTSD but not with other common trauma-related symptoms.


What do the findings mean?


Findings from this large, randomized clinical trial support comprehensive care delivered by clinicians as effective for treating mental disorders, including PTSD. The study also suggests that this comprehensive form of care is beneficial for people from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, who often face disparities in medical settings. Among the factors the researchers attribute to the intervention’s success for a diverse group of trauma survivors are its patient-centered focus, flexible nature tailored to individual needs, and emphasis on shared decision-making.


This study is already having a real-world impact by informing trauma care guidelines in the United States. The researchers' longstanding work with this population has helped establish best practices for screening and treating mental health and substance use disorders among trauma survivors. Based on the results of this study, trauma centers are now implementing a screening and referral process for patients at high risk for mental disorders after injury as part of a new standard of care. The next step for the researchers is to test this new standard of care against the collaborative care intervention .


This study was limited by collapsing racial and ethnic groups into two categories, possibly masking differences in treatment responses. Replicating the study with larger samples would allow for more nuanced comparisons to see for which groups the intervention works best. Additionally, many patients in the study had experienced prior traumatic events and been hospitalized for PTSD, which may have led to different results compared to other collaborative care studies. Researchers should continue to explore collaborative care with diverse patient groups across different health care settings and with other mental disorders to refine the intervention and help make mental health care more equitable and effective.


Note: This article originally appeared on NIMH.

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