When help becomes a hindrance: mental health referral systems as barriers to care for primary care physicians treating patients with Alzheimer's disease

Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2010 Jul;18(7):576-85. doi: 10.1097/jgp.0b013e3181a76df7.


Objectives: To describe structural barriers to mental health specialists and consequences of these barriers to care for patients with dementia and neuropsychological symptoms and their primary care physicians (PCPs).

Design: Cross-sectional qualitative interview study of PCPs.

Setting: Physicians' offices, primarily managed care.

Participants: Forty PCPs in Northern California.

Measurements: Open-ended interviews lasted 30-60 minutes. The interview guide covered clinician background, practice setting, clinical care of a particular patient, and general approach to managing patients with Alzheimer disease or related dementias.Interviews were transcribed and themes reflecting referrals identified.

Results: Ninety-three percentage of the PCPs described problematic access to and communication with mental health specialists (in particular psychiatrists and neuropsychologists) as impediments to effective care for dementia patients. Thematic analysis identified structural barriers to mental health referrals ranging from problems with managed care and reimbursement policies to lack of trained providers and poor geographic distribution of specialists. Structural barriers compromised care for patients with dementia because the barriers limited PCP treatment options, and resources, impacted office staff and time with other patients, impeded and delayed care, and fostered poor communication and lack of coordinated care. Negative consequences for PCPs included increased frustration,conflict, and burnout.

Conclusion: PCPs viewed problems created by onerous referral systems, such as mental health carve outs, as particularly burdensome for elderly patients with comorbid dementia and neuropsychiatric problems. These problems were cited by PCPs across different types of practice settings. PCPs managed treatment of neurobehavioral symptoms as best they could despite lack of specialist support.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / therapy*
  • Communication Barriers*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Health Care Sector / organization & administration
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Humans
  • Insurance, Health, Reimbursement
  • Interview, Psychological
  • Male
  • Mental Health Services / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychology
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Physicians, Family / psychology*
  • Psychiatry
  • Referral and Consultation / statistics & numerical data*