Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers: Where behavioral health finds a home with primary care

July 22, 2019

For Summer Barlow, M.D., chief medical officer of Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers (AMCHC), the decision to dedicate her career to community health center work was deeply personal.

“I grew up in a low-income family, and my parents didn’t always have health insurance,” she explains. “My father was a carpenter who was severely injured when I was 11, and he wasn’t able to get care because he didn’t have insurance. I am very passionate about community health centers because I have a deep belief that everyone deserves and needs access to healthcare. I love working in a system that helps ensure that for all patients.”

As a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), AMCHC offers accessible, patient-centered care at six locations throughout Western North Carolina. Its mission is to deliver timely, comprehensive, and quality health services with dignity and respect to WNC residents, regardless of a person’s ability to pay or insurance status. AMCHC sees all patients, including those with Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance and no insurance. Fees are determined on a sliding scale based on a patient’s income and family size.

The organization provides a range of services depending on the needs of each clinic’s population, including primary care, behavioral healthcare, specialty referrals, basic cardiology care, case management, and chronic disease prevention, screenings, and management. Providers also work with patients and other organizations to address acute and chronic health concerns like hepatitis C, opioid addiction and behavioral health issues.

To ensure as many people as possible have access to high-quality healthcare, AMCHC has a location in downtown Asheville and clinics in rural locations that have little to no primary care or pediatric services. It also runs a clinic at Western Carolina Rescue Ministries.

Providing patient-centered care

The AMCHC team embraces an integrated, holistic approach to preventive, acute and chronic healthcare by combining specialized treatment, health education, community assistance and behavioral health intervention to deliver patient-centered care. The organization’s team of providers includes doctors, community health workers, peer support specialists, nursing staff, and Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSWs). The care team works with each patient and their families to ensure that decisions respect patients’ wants, needs, and preferences.

“It’s important to our organization that we are looking at the whole person and addressing their health needs as well as other issues they are facing in their lives,” says Dr. Barlow. “Health centers figured out early on that an important part of health was all of the other factors that contribute to overall health: housing, transportation, food, social network and education. These factors are called the ‘social determinants of health.’”

AMCHC clinics screen patients for issues related to social determinants of health, and staff are trained to address them and provide education and referrals as needed. Some locations offer access to transportation, food and clothing.

Integrating behavioral health into primary care

Through partnerships with providers like Meridian Behavioral Health Services and Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), AMCHC provides evidence-based behavioral health in a primary care setting.

Going beyond the term “mental health” to address factors like physical symptoms associated with stress or substance use disorders, behavioral health is an important part of AMCHC’s patient-centered care.

“Behavioral health services are a key part of AMCHC’s mission because we must make sure we are meeting the needs of the communities we serve,” says Dr. Barlow. “In the United States last year, it is estimated that almost 20 percent of adults experienced anxiety and approximately 10 percent experienced depression. We know that struggling with these mental health issues has many negative health implications. If we address both physical and mental health, we will help people have better overall health and a better quality of life.”

Good stewardship

“At AMCHC, we believe we are stewards of this precious resource of healthcare, so we want to be thoughtful in how we grow, develop and use our resources,” Dr. Barlow explains. “I have siblings who use community health centers, and I want all patients to be treated the way I would want my own family to be treated and have an excellent experience whenever they come to one of our clinics.”