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Population Health

Jürgen Unützer

Jürgen-UnützerJürgen Unützer
Professor and chair, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Visit Dr. Unützer’s faculty page to learn more about his professional background.

What is the area of focus for your work/research?
Mental health is an important part of overall health. IHME estimates that mental disorders are responsible for 23% of all health related disability worldwide (Vos et al, Lancet 2012). Although we have effective treatments for common mental disorders like depression, the vast majority of individuals living with these disorders in the U.S. and abroad do not have access to effective care.

My work focuses on innovative approaches to improve access to effective mental health care in low resource areas in King County, the State of Washington, the Pacific Northwest and globally. We have developed an internationally recognized approach called Collaborative Care in which primary care providers and school based health providers are supported by psychiatrists and other mental health professionals to care for individuals and families struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. We use principles of task sharing and state of the art telehealth and information technology to ‘leverage” scarce resources such as psychiatric experts so that they can reach and serve larger populations in settings where there are few or no mental health experts. Our research has proven that collaborative care can improve access to care and health outcomes and reduce overall health care costs, achieving the triple aim of health care reform.

How do you see your own work/research contributing to better population health outcomes?
Mental health is an important part of overall health and with poor mental health we cannot accomplish what we would like to in our personal lives, family and work. Mental disorders are much like other health problems. To be mentally healthy, we need to have a well-functioning brain and a safe and supportive environment. Mental disorders are common in all parts of society and around the world. Depression alone causes three times more disability than diabetes, eight time more disability than heart disease, and 20 times more disability than cancer. It keeps people from functioning and achieving their goals at home and at work. It also interferes with health care for other conditions. In a person living with diabetes, for example, depression causes poor adherence to treatment, sedentary lifestyles and other poor health behaviors, worsening of diabetes, and early mortality. Individuals with severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are at high risk for unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration. At its worst, untreated mental illness can lead to suicide. In the United States, someone takes their life by suicide every 13 minutes and more people die from suicide than from homicides or motor vehicle accidents. Worldwide, there are more than a million suicides worldwide each year.

In recent years, we have developed a new Division of Population Health in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. The work of this interdisciplinary team focuses on improving health by improving access to effective mental health care, better targeting effective treatments, reducing excess mortality in those living with severe and persistent mental disorders, and speeding up the translation and implementation of effective care models in low resource settings in the United States and abroad. These efforts are well aligned with the President’s new initiative on Population Health.

What do you hope can be accomplished through this initiative?
I am thrilled about this new initiative. I think that President Cauce is absolutely right, that if we look at the human capital and the strengths of this university, there is an enormous amount that we can do to help improve health for populations here at home and around the world. In that context, Mental Health is a huge part of overall health. It causes 23% of all disability worldwide.

There is much we can offer here at UW Medicine, in our region and around the world to help improve access to better mental health care and we will be most successful in this effort if we develop effective partnerships of programs across our university. I believe that if this new initiative helps us develop and strengthen such partnerships, we will develop and implement new ways to keep individuals mentally and physically health in the first place and to provide effective care for millions of individuals and families affected by mental illness worldwide.