Study Finds Staffing in Health Centers Can Improve Behavioral Health Care

Increasing staff in rural community health centers can improve behavioral health care among patients, finds a new study co-authored by Leighton Ku, PhD, MPH, a professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health (GW Milken Institute SPH).

Ku co-authored the study with Xinxin Han, PhD, an alumna of the GW Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, who received her doctorate in public policy and administration on a health policy track. The researchers compared behavioral health care staffing and services in rural and urban community health centers between 2013 and 2017. They found the staff-to-patient ratio in behavioral health increased by 66 percent in rural community health centers and 49 percent in urban health centers. In both cases, most of the new staff members were clinical social workers and other licensed mental health providers.

The increase in staff allowed for rural centers to serve a similar number of patients for depression and anxiety as their urban center counterparts. As a result, the study’s authors conclude, increasing behavioral health staffing in rural community health centers could help reduce the urban-rural gap in the availability of behavioral health services. About 60 million people live in rural areas across the United States. Community health centers serve one in five patients in these areas, regardless of their ability to pay for health care. The analysis also showed the role of the National Health Service Corps, which provides loan repayments to clinicians who practice in areas with too few health practitioners.

“The community health center and National Health Service Corps programs play a vital role in strengthening access to behavioral health care in rural and underserved areas,” Ku said. “They help alleviate suffering due to substance use and mental health across the nation.”

The study, “Enhancing Staffing In Rural Community Health Centers Can Help Improve Behavioral Health Care” was published in the December issue of Health Affairs and Ku presented on the topic at an event hosted by Health Affairs in Washington, DC, on Dec. 4.