Managing mental health is critical for achieving desired physical health outcomes. That’s why some companies are partnering with health organizations to make mental health a priority.


Authored by Jane Sarasohn-Kahn, MA, MHSA

Of the $3.8 trillion spent on healthcare in the United States in 2018—a number that’s expected to reach nearly $6 trillion in 2027, based on projections from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)—chronic medical conditions consumed a whopping 75%. One in two Americans now live with conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and they are seeking support services to help them manage these chronic conditions, as well as their personal healthcare spending.

People with chronic conditions also face another pressing issue: managing their mental health wellness. Studies show a direct correlation between mental health and chronic conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that only 17% of American adults are in a state of “optimal mental health.” When mental health isn’t managed well, a person’s ability to achieve desired physical health outcomes—and manage chronic conditions like obesity, high blood pressure and COPD—can be compromised.

On the health economic front, treating patients with several chronic conditions can cost as much as seven times more than treating patients with only one chronic illness. “Comorbidity is the rule, not the exception,” the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation wrote in a seminal report on managing chronic physical and behavioral health conditions. The report calculated that 68% of adults with mental disorders had medical conditions, and 29% of adults with medical conditions had mental disorders.

It Takes a Village

An illustration from W.J. Katon’s work on relationships between depression and general medical illness shows how medical and physical disorders interact in a complex, bi-directional way. When a person has a chronic condition, a collaborative effort is needed among legacy healthcare players (such as providers, plans, pharma and retail pharmacies), platform technologies that people use in daily living, and digital health innovations that promote self-care and remote health monitoring.

In April and May 2019, CVS Health polled consumers and healthcare providers, such as physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and pharmacists, to explore their perspectives on chronic disease, patient demands and digital technology.

Seven in 10 consumers told CVS Health that privacy, cost, ease of access and data security were most important for their healthcare. Dealing with mental health intensifies these three issues because:

  • A person’s mental health data contains sensitive information.
  • Mental health payment parity remains elusive.
  • Taboos around mental healthcare services can create barriers to patients seeking care in convenient locations.

With these health consumer demands in mind, here are two companies partnering with health organizations to address the mental well-being of the consumers they serve.

1. Improving Quality of Life With Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels launched in the United States in 1954. For the past 65 years, the organization has delivered food directly to older people at home thanks to the 5,000-plus community-based senior nutrition programs across the country. Now, the program is striking up partnerships with health plans such as Aetna and Humana.

The More Than a Meal Research Study conducted by Brown University and Meals on Wheels America found that the program benefits patients well beyond the meal itself. Those who received meals on a daily basis experienced greater health improvements and quality of life metrics versus those who received frozen meals weekly. The people who received daily meals were also more likely to report feeling less isolated and worrying less about living independently at home.

Meals on Wheels is collaborating with Humana Medicare Advantage members in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia. Beyond food delivery, the program is measuring clients’ perceptions of loneliness based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale. People who score high on the scale receive weekly “friendly visitor” services.

2. Leveraging Pinterest for Mental Health

Pinterest is another example of a company going beyond their core business impact and forging into mental health wellness. Pinterest is partnering with Brainstorm, the female-founded physician-led lab at the Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Vibrant Emotional Health (formerly, the Mental Health Association of New York City). Together, these collaborators are developing a digital pinboard for users to search and post about emotional health topics.

When a Pinterest user searches terms like “stress quotes” or “work anxiety,” activities will pop up to engage and inspire the person in a positive direction. However, if someone searches for something self-harm related, the site directs the user to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which the individual can reach in just two taps. To maintain a level of privacy—a key value identified in the CVS Health research—ads aren’t generated in this area of Pinterest, and the activity in this area is stored anonymously via a third-party service.

Driving Health Through Trust

A viewpoint published in the July 2019 issue of JAMA emphasizes the three forces converging to drive similar collaborations—such as Meals on Wheels and Pinterest—in the healthcare ecosystem:

  1. The recognition that social needs like housing and food security significantly impact health outcomes
  2. The shift toward value-based care and alternative payment models
  3. A “bipartisan focus on building a healthier society” and improving community health

For collaborations to work with members of the community, healthcare organizations must be trusted to partner with them at home, at work, in faith-based organizations and through other community touchpoints.

American consumers’ level of trust with hospitals actually fell between 2018 and 2019, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

The chart (see below) illustrates historical trend lines across the five healthcare segments that Edelman gauged between 2015 and 2019. In the past year, the only healthcare segment where Americans trust level fell was with hospitals and clinics, dropping one percentage point in the year versus consumers’ sentiments about biotech, health insurance, consumer health brands and pharmaceutical companies.

The ABIM Foundation, the not-for-profit affiliated with the American Board of Internal Medicine, convened a “Trust in Health Care” initiative in 2018. These primary care physicians, who developed the “Choosing Wisely” program, recognize and promote the value of trust as a basis for health care relationships that drive optimal patient outcomes and support shared decision-making as well as underpin the stewardship of health care resources.

Partnering with trusted organizations brings a trust “halo” to the healthcare stakeholders who may lack the high levels of trust that patients demand.

Meals on Wheels’ long-lived respect earned across three generations of experience in local communities brings that kind of trust-gravitas. Pinterest, working with the academic institution Stanford and the mature teams of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Vibrant, also elevates trust and overcomes the cynical factor that legacy health care providers may confront in their local communities.

Trust and health, and especially mental health, go hand in hand. Healthcare providers, plans and pharma companies have the opportunity to partner with organizations in the community, leveraging both in-person and digital tech to scale relationships, mitigate the risks of social determinants and heal healthcare. Collaboration is required to address our present chronic and mental health challenges and complexities.

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