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Online Doctor of Behavioral Health: clinical or management?

October 10, 2018 · 7 min read · By ASU Online

Mental health has received a considerable amount of attention in recent years. Celebrities are speaking out about the effects of depression, substance abuse, bipolar disorder and eating disorders, and individuals feel more comfortable addressing mental health among their peers.


Attitudes and treatment options, however, are far from where they need to be. Statistics from the American Psychological Association showed too few people receive treatment for their mental health and substance abuse disorders. Reasons for lack of treatment include stigmas against treatment, high costs, lack of health insurance, overburdened social workers, cultural insensitivity and more.

Thankfully, many professionals are working to provide more comprehensive care for patients. One strategy is to make behavioral health a focus of primary physicians rather than limiting it to specialists. Doing so would help clinics uphold the Institute for Healthcare Improvement's Triple Aim, an initiative supported by the health care industry at large. This effort aims to:

  • Improve the patient experience, particularly concerning quality and satisfaction
  • Improve the health of populations
  • Reduce the per-capita cost of health care

To support the Triple Aim, existing and future physicians will need a comprehensive understanding of what behavioral health is, how to treat behavioral concerns, how to consolidate these treatments into primary offices and what will be the best ways to carry out policies and strategies that address more than physical issues.

An online Doctor of Behavioral Health can help physicians overcome these challenges. Prospective students may choose to focus their degrees in either clinical practice or management. These concentrations are designed to prepare students to pursue specific paths upon graduation that meet their professional goals.

A clinician listening to a female patient.

What is behavioral health?

People often use the terms “behavioral health” and “mental health” interchangeably, but clinicians emphasize a distinct difference. While mental health refers to a variety of emotional disorders, behavioral health is focused on how patients’ actions and environments contribute to their physical and emotional well-being. Factors that may influence behavioral health include:

  • Eating habits
  • Coping mechanisms
  • Work environment
  • Home environment
  • Chronic illnesses

Some influencing factors are outside the patient’s control. For example, a family living near a polluted water supply affecting their physical health may not have the resources to move. Similarly, individuals working in high-stress environments may be unable to leave their jobs. Other factors, such as addiction and substance abuse, require consistent effort, strong willpower and the help of a knowledgeable, supportive caregiver. With such a variety of circumstances affecting people, treating behavioral health issues requires individualized, nuanced approaches.

Current efforts to improve behavioral health services

With crises like the opioid epidemic dominating the news, medical professionals and the general public have given increased attention to behavioral health. The American Hospital Association and other health care groups have consistently called upon Congress to enact comprehensive mental health care reform that addresses these and other behavioral issues.

Furthermore, advocates are campaigning for inclusive primary care treatment that includes mental and behavioral health, not just physical health. This would help by providing better mental and behavioral care for people who only have or can only afford a primary care physician, and it could potentially reduce stigmas surrounding mental and behavioral health disorders. By providing greater access to behavioral health care services, instances of opioid abuse, domestic violence and other prevalent social problems could begin to decrease.

Per the American Psychological Association, while approximately 1 in 4 primary care patients suffers from depression, primary care doctors address this disorder in only 31 percent of cases. Health care professionals believe integrating behavioral health into primary care can help reduce medical costs and provide better patient outcomes.

In general, behavioral health doctorate programs focus on clinical practice and advocacy. The coursework is designed to help practitioners support and carry out measures that integrate behavioral health and primary care. Those looking to study further may want to pursue a Doctor of Behavioral Health concentration depending on if they’re interested in clinical practice or planning to move into management.

Comparing behavioral health clinical and management doctoral programs

Two behavioral health concentrations — clinical and management — are designed to address separate yet related aspects of the current healthcare environment. Both may cover core topics such as population-based health management; organization, delivery and economics of health care systems and quality and performance measurement, improvement and incentives. Either of these degrees can help to prepare graduates to work in integrated healthcare environments where clinical, operational, and financial policies, procedures, and practices are combined to support medical and behavioral services.

Additionally, both programs may be available online, allowing students to earn an advanced education while managing their current professional commitments. The program differences, however, can better prepare students for the specific types of behavioral health careers they may wish to pursue.

A clinician, pointing to information on a tablet, consults with a senior male patient.

A clinical concentration

This type of program is for students who are licensed or license eligible as medical, behavioral or allied health professionals and want to take a hands-on approach to behavioral health. Upon completion, clinicians may employ evidence-based treatment programs while working directly with patients in a primary care setting. They may also be able to integrate primary care techniques within their behavioral health practices. Licensed and license-eligible clinicians who do not have direct experience or would like to enhance their clinical skills practicing as a behavioral consultant in a primary care setting are suited for a DBH Clinical concentration.

Courses in a clinical concentration can include:

  • Models of intervention
  • Brief interventions
  • Clinical neuropathophysiology
  • Psychopharmacology

This concentration can prepare students for careers such as:

  • Behavioral health consultant
  • Behavioral health provider
  • Health care consultant
  • Clinical manager
  • Health coach
  • Health educator

A management concentration

This kind of program is designed to train current and future health care managers for an evolving practice environment that incorporates behavioral interventions into primary care spaces. While clinicians deal directly with patients, managers enact the policies and create budgets that support these professionals and the patients in their care. The curriculum for such a program can help to provide a thorough understanding of management including finance, cost-savings and return on investment, leadership and leading interdisciplinary teams. Clinicians who are not licensed or license-eligible should consider a DBH management concentration over clinical.

Courses in a management concentration can include:

  • Financial management in health care
  • Cost offset and return on investment for behavioral intervention
  • Legal, ethical and professional health care issues

This concentration can prepare students for careers such as:

  • Health care administrator
  • Health care manager
  • Health care executive
  • Health care consultant
  • Medical and health services manager
  • Clinical manager
  • Project manager

Earning a Doctorate in Behavioral Health with ASU Online

While true health care reform relies partially on government support and adoption of effective techniques across the industry, graduates of the Doctorate of Behavioral Health with a clinical concentration can be the ones implementing these new policies, standing on the front lines of innovative, evidence-based health care practices that improve the lives of individual patients.

Graduates of the Doctorate of Behavioral Health with a management concentration, on the other hand, can be the ones to reform practices and policies at existing facilities — or start their own health care businesses — that utilize evidence-based strategies integrating behavioral health with primary care.

Faculty at ASU note that although both the clinical and management concentrations focus on primary care as the hub of integrated health care, “there are many other settings and positions in need of integrated health care clinical and management experience. These can include mental health and substance abuse settings, health plan and managed care organization integrated care programs, EAP, employee wellness, school, university, government and consultant positions.”

The team continues on to explain that, “any setting that includes patients with co-morbid medical, behavioral, and health behavior issues presents an opportunity and need for integrated health care practice and management.”

With a DBH, professionals can ensure nationwide compliance with best practices established by medical researchers, professionals and government advocates to improve health care outcomes for their patients. By spreading the use of integrative health care practices, patients can rest assured that their physical and behavioral health needs will be addressed in a simpler manner than in the past.



American Hospital Association - Behavioral Health Workforce Issues
Data on behavioral health in the United States by the American Psychological Association
The IHI Triple Aim by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement
ASU Online — Online Doctor of Behavioral Health (Clinical)
ASU Online — Online Doctor of Behavioral Health (Management)


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