Care alongside Care: Treating Comorbid Medical and Behavioral Conditions

It’s 11:30 on a Tuesday night in the emergency department of a local county hospital. The doctor pulls back the curtain on his next patient and frowns. He has seen this man before. He looks down at the chart and recognizes the name. He’d been in about eight weeks before with trouble breathing and chest pains. Gears click in doctor’s memory, as he recalls this patient. His medical work-up had shown nothing acutely wrong. He’d been encouraged to take his usual medications, and sent home with instructions to see his regular doctor as soon as possible to make sure his chronic diabetes and congestive heart failure were under good control.

The doctor pulls a stool across the floor and sits down bedside.

“Hi Brian, what seems to be the trouble?”

“My chest. I couldn’t breathe. And I can’t seem to concentrate. I just don’t want to do anything.” Brian’s voice is listless and low, and he looks fatigued.

“I see you were in a couple of months ago. Did you go and see your regular physician?”

Brian shrugs but doesn’t say anything. His eyes are fixed firmly on the floor.

The doctor pauses. He looks at Brian for a while. The man looks like he hasn’t taken care of himself. His clothes are wrinkled, and he’s lost some weight since his last visit to the emergency department. The doctor looks over Brian’s vitals and labs. He finds nothing concerning on physical exam. He asks, “Brian, has anyone ever talked to you about depression?”


In the case above, Brian is a fictional character, but the situation is not. The co-occurrence of mental health disorders with physical ailments is common. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report found that 68 percent of adults with mental disorders have medical conditions, and 29 percent of adults with medical conditions have mental disorders. The most common of these is depression. Many research studies have found high rates of comorbid depression with chronic and terminal medical conditions. In many cases, the medical conditions or treatments for the conditions can cause depression. In others, the depression itself can lead to health behaviors that cause or worsen medical illness, and even higher risk of death. For instance, persons with depression have higher rates of smoking cigarettes than the general public. This can lead to heart disease. But, depression itself can also cause changes in brain chemistry and platelets, which can worsen existing heart disease.

Common Conditions with Comorbid Depression

Comorbid depression in some medical conditions is common. According to the National Institute of Health, there is a close relationship between depression and other physical ailments:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias
  • Cancer
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Stroke
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

Depression also has a negative effect on treatment and outcomes for these diseases. A 2015 published research study showed those with comorbid depression had more negative outcomes for their primary ailment than those who only had the primary ailment. Research also shows a lower quality of life, lower compliance with medical treatments, and lower rates of exercise and healthy eating habits for patients with comorbid depression compared to those with the same physical ailment(s) who did not suffer from depression.

This comorbidity has consequences beyond the health of the patient. People with multiple medical conditions are a rapidly growing and extremely costly segment of the US population. Patients with behavioral health disorders spend more on treatment for general medical conditions. When compared to those without depression, overall health care spending for medical conditions is higher than those without, in addition to treatment for the depression itself.

Improving Care for Comorbid Behavioral Health Conditions

The first step is identifying patients with comorbid behavioral health conditions before they reach the dangerous and costly levels discussed above. The primary care setting may be the best place to first find depression. But how?

Magellan’s Screen and Engage program is an innovative, user-friendly application that primary care physicians (PCPs) can use to identify patients at risk for a mental illness. Using a Magellan-provided iPad, the patient answers questions about his or her health and well-being while waiting for an appointment. The screening tools are also available in Magellan’s Virtual Care Solutions. Magellan’s proprietary algorithms assess the results, identify potential behavioral health issues and suggest recommendations for treatment, and flag clinicians to engage the patients.

The benefits of the tool are clear. Given the limited amount of time that a PCP has for each appointment, he or she must focus the conversation on the primary reason for the visit. As such, there is little opportunity to probe for behavioral health concerns. By conducting the screening before the short appointment, the PCP has a chance to be notified of the screening results, and discuss them during the visit.

Screening for behavioral health conditions is just the first step. Step two is treating them. In general, depression is treated with either medications and/or cognitive behavioral (CBT) psychotherapy. CBT is a specific type of therapy that relies on identifying and changing ones thoughts that can lead to depression. Research shows that the combination of the two is better than either done separately. While it may be easy to receive anti-depressants from medical doctors, it is often difficult to find CBT.

Cobalt, Magellan’s computerized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CCBT) program, is a cost-effective solution to address common behavioral health conditions. Cobalt provides CCBT online or through a smartphone/tablet app. This makes face-to-face CBT—proven to work but often difficult to find providers, especially in rural areas and for working people—available anywhere, any time. It is also a more private approach to CBT. Patients can access treatment from their homes versus an office.

Computerized CBT has proven to be just as effective as in-person CBT. Magellan offers Cobalt modules for insomnia, depression, anxiety, substance use disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, treating more than 90 percent of behavioral health conditions seen in primary care and behavioral settings.

Tackling Comorbid Conditions for a Healthy Future

At Magellan, we have made it our mission to help individuals like Brian, whose case is all too common. Tackling comorbid behavioral health issues alongside common medical conditions is one way we do it. Investing in and using new technology, we can identify more people who need help and expand their access to effective, proven treatments.




Learn More About Computerized Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Learn more about how CCBT is opening access to care by downloading this new infographic: Unaffordable and Unnecessary — How common conditions are driving up costs (and why they don’t need to)
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