Prepare the Infrastructure in Your Setting

Establish Operational Systems to Support Integration

Operational systems are the background systems and workflows that allow staff and providers to work together to address the problems and needs of patients. Having reliable systems is important in all aspects of health care to ensure that all patients receive timely, quality health care. Reliable systems also help prevent confusion among providers and staff about who is supposed to do what. The operational systems for integration should build on your existing platform and serve as the foundation for translating your behavioral health integration game plan into your daily work.

These tips can help you transition from referring your patients to a behavioral health provider to integrating the behavioral health provider in the patient care workflow.

North Star

The setting has operational systems in place to support the daily functions of integrated ambulatory care.

What is the North Star?

The North Star

The North Star reflects ideal practices of an integrated behavioral health and ambulatory care setting. The North Star can act as a goal or guide toward your desired state of integration.

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How Do You Do It?

Operational systems include workflows and protocols to identify patients’ needs and subsequently manage, treat, and monitor them in a way that is clear to providers and reduces errors and oversights. Every practice setting has workflows to manage its patient panel. Workflows related to integration should specify how to:

  1. Identify patients who might benefit from integration.
  2. Engage patients in integrated care.
  3. Communicate about shared patients.
  4. Monitor patients, including adjustments to treatment.

The workflow should indicate not just what needs to be done, but also who is responsible for doing what and how the team will work together. Keep in mind that one narrowly defined workflow will not be ideal for all patients all of the time. Build workflows that have core features but can be tailored for particular patients and populations. For example, use similar communication and documentation processes but involve different team configurations or different clinical interventions. Flexible implementation is essential.

To get started:

  1. Define the target population (refer back to your Game Plan).
  2. Define the roles of providers and staff who will manage, treat, and monitor the identified patients.

How Others Are Doing It


When designing and organizing your operational systems for integrated behavioral health in your ambulatory care setting, identify metrics you want to capture. Think about which metrics will be most useful for your setting (e.g., metrics to assess how well your system is working and metrics of clinical progress) and consider how to incorporate the metrics into routine operational systems rather than having “add-ons” that are hard to maintain.


To bill for services, the behavioral health provider must be credentialed with the health plans that serve your patient population. Credentialing must be done separately for each plan. This process can take from a few weeks to months. Some plans allow retroactive billing once credentialing is complete. Check with each plan about this.

Health systems and other large health care organizations might enter into a joint dialogue with payers about how they can support integrated care programs and provide the reimbursement necessary to provide behavioral health care for their members. This dialogue will help them understand that the behavioral health provider is part of the care team, not a specialist operating in a referral mode from a distant site. Emphasize that integrated workflows can help improve outcomes for complex patients, and work with payers to determine billing procedures.


Designate workspace that maximizes ease of contact between behavioral health providers and medical clinicians and that supports both exchange of information and convenient dialogue with patients. Locating the behavioral health provider physically in the middle of the clinical area seems to be an important factor in the success of an integrated program. This facilitates informal conversations about patients and helps bring the behavioral health provider into the care team for patients who could benefit from behavioral health services.

When not seeing patients, the behavioral health provider can be available to medical staff. This is particularly helpful when they recognize a patient needing behavioral health services and want to make a “warm hand-off.”  Configure the behavioral health provider’s schedule so it includes unscheduled time for communication and warm hand-offs. Aim to find the right balance of access, productivity, and flexibility that the integrated program can sustain.

One of the advantages of integrated care is the ability to provide patients with quick and convenient access to behavioral health services. Long waiting lists for behavioral health care interfere with access. Monitoring access to the behavioral health provider is important during program startup and should be done regularly as the program matures. Learn more about collecting and using data in Collect and Use Data for Quality Improvement.


Integration is supported by documentation in a common medical record. Documentation by the behavioral health provider should be brief and focused on the information needed by the medical provider, such as:

  • What is the diagnosis, and is it different from what the medical provider thought?
  • What type of treatment will be provided?
  • Is the patient engaged in treatment? If not, what are the obstacles and what should the care team watch out for?
  • Is treatment helping? If not, what adjustments might be needed?
  • What, if any, treatment or coordination of care is needed from the medical provider?

Understanding privacy and confidentiality regulations related to behavioral health treatment in medical settings is an essential aspect of documentation. Behavioral health care involves specific restrictions on how patient information is handled. In general, however, if the patient understands and agrees to the sharing of information, it is okay to do so. Here are some tips on how to approach privacy and confidentiality in your integrated setting:

  • Revise general patient consent and authorization forms to incorporate information about the sharing of behavioral health information among providers and other members of the care team. This will make it clear that communication and information-sharing among members of the care team, including the behavioral health provider, are routine in the practice.
  • Psychotherapy process notes are a specific type of documentation that requires additional protection. These records rarely need to be shared with the rest of the team. File these notes separately, with special processes in place for team members to gain access.
  • Information about substance abuse treatment also has special protection, but only when generated by substance abuse treatment facilities and programs that receive Federal assistance. Substance abuse treatment information in primary care or other medical settings can be shared like other types of personal health information in the medical record.


When adopting a new operational system, it is important to start small. Have one or two providers try the new system with a few patients, expand it to more providers and more patients as “bugs” are worked out and confidence is gained. Pay attention to what works and what doesn’t as you expand the operational system. Give providers and staff an opportunity to provide suggestions on how to enhance the new system. This will allow you to identify workflows that maximize patient and provider outcomes before proceeding to wider implementation.

Make sure to train all staff in the new integration processes and associated billing procedures. Recognize that adjustments will be needed during the transition to a new integrated environment. 


Measurement is an important part of implementation. As new workflows are implemented, you should measure key process steps and components to ensure that you are doing what you intended. The workflow you are redesigning will determine the process measures you will use.

Workflows are generally connected to desired patient outcomes. In most situations, these include clinical, functional, satisfaction, quality of life, and economic outcomes. Workflows that are not leading to desired outcomes in these targeted areas should be modified. Try to measure something about the intended impact—some desired outcome of your system—to see if what you are doing is having the impact you expected. The metrics incorporated into the operational system can be used to determine if the transition has succeeded and to identify areas for improvement.

How Others Are Doing It

  • MaineHealth introduced depression screening in primary care using the PHQ-2/9 (Patient Health Questionnaire-2/9) and by monitoring and adjusting their operational systems, gradually improved their rate of screening in adults from about 20 percent annually in 2004 to over 60 percent in 2015. MaineHealth trains primary care clinicians in the use of the PHQ-2/9 and provides monthly feedback to practices about screening rates for each clinician. This feedback is used to assess whether the current workflow is reliable, and if not, the workflow is modified. MaineHealth also has standardized a process to ensure accurate documentation of screening results in the electronic health record system.


What Not to Do

  • Don't approach integration as a “project.” Projects end. Instead, approach integration as a change in the way that care will be provided in your setting.
  • Don’t get stuck in the planning stages. Some things can only be figured out by trying something and adjusting as needed.
  • Don’t expect a single “one-size-fits-all” workflow to work for all patients. Different population segments are likely to need different workflows.
  • Avoid a workflow that relies only on provider memory during a busy office visit.


The Playbook includes many examples of how sites have implemented specific aspects of integration. If you would like to contribute, please send us your example of how your organization established operational systems to support integrated behavioral health in your ambulatory care setting.

Send Us Your Example


Integrating Behavioral and Physical Health Care in the Real World: Early Lessons from Advancing Care Together

This article presents implementation challenges and lessons learned from a study of 11 practices participating in the Advancing Care Together (ACT) program.

Source: Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, Vol. 28, No. 5 (2013)
Profile: Incorporating Routine Behavioral Health Screenings Into the Patient-Centered Medical Home

This case study illustrates how Barre Family Health Center incorporated behavioral health into the clinical workflow of their patient-centered medical home by routinely screening patients for unidentified or untreated behavioral health needs.

Source: University of Massachusetts Medical School
Billing Tools: Paying for Primary Care and Behavioral Health Services Provided in Integrated Care Settings

Billing and financial worksheets for each State can be downloaded.

Source: SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions
Designing Clinical Space for the Delivery of Integrated Behavioral Health and Primary Care

Gunn et al. observed spatial layout design of 19 integrated care practices and suggest two promising layouts based on their findings.

Source: Journal of The American Board of Family Medicine, Vol. 28 Supplement (2015)
Redesigning Your Work Space to Support Team-Based Care

McGough et al. offer four design elements to improve your team-based care.

Source: Family Practice Management, Vol. 20, No. 2 (2013)
Clinician Staffing, Scheduling, and Engagement Strategies Among Primary Care Practices Delivering Integrated Care

In this article, Davis et al. report their observations of staffing, scheduling, and workflows to bring behavioral health providers into patients’ care teams.

Source: Journal of The American Board of Family Medicine, Vol. 28 Supplement (2015)
Behavioral Health Integration Toolkit

This toolkit, originally developed for the Massachusetts Patient-Centered Medical Home Initiative, provides strategies for integrating behavioral health in primary care settings.

Source: University of Massachusetts Medical School
Medicare Annual Wellness Visit – Health Risk Assessment

An example form to document a patient health risk assessment in an electronic health record system.

Source: MaineHealth
Privacy and Sharing

This resource includes links to The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, Public Law 104-191 (HIPAA) and the Privacy Rule.

Source: AHRQ Academy

Information and resources to help providers navigate information exchange for effective care coordination.

Source: SAMHSA-HRSA Center for Integrated Health Solutions
Integrating Physical and Behavioral Health: Strategies for Overcoming Legal Barriers to Health Information Exchange

This brief reviews strategies to overcome barriers to information exchange between behavioral and medical health providers.

Source: Manatt Health Solutions
Privacy and Integrated Behavioral Health – Special Considerations Under HIPAA and Part 2

This Webinar addresses common misconceptions about regulations for sharing behavioral health information.

Source: Mental Health America of Greater Houston
How Does Integrated Behavioral Health Care Work?

This resource includes examples of process measures to evaluate how well your integrated care program is working, in addition to other assessment resources.

Source: California Mental Health Services Authority, Integrated Behavioral Health Project
Workflow Assessment for Health IT Toolkit

A toolkit to help analyze workflows as they relate to the implementation of health information technology.

Source: AHRQ National Resource Center


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