Rural-Urban Prescribing Patterns by Primary Care and Behavioral Health Providers in Older Adults with Serious Mental Illness


Ulrike Muench, Matthew Jura, Cindy Parks Thomas, Jennifer Perloff, and Joanne Spetz

November 30, 2022

Older adults with serious mental illness (SMI) often have multiple comorbidities and complex medication schedules. Shortages of behavioral health specialists (BHSs), especially in rural areas, frequently make primary care providers (PCPs) the only clinician managing this complex population. The aim of this study was to describe rural/urban psychiatric medication prescribing in older adults with SMI by PCPs and BHSs, and by clinician type. Results highlight the extensive roles of PCPs, including APRNs, in managing psychiatric medications for older adults with SMI.

This retrospective descriptive analysis used 2018 Medicare data to identify individuals with a bipolar, major depression, schizophrenia, or psychosis diagnosis and examined medication claims for antianxiety, antidepressants, antipsychotics, hypnotics, and anticonvulsants. Descriptive statistics summarized percentage of medications provided by PCPs and BHSs stratified by rural and urban areas and by drug class. Additional analyses compared psychiatric prescribing patterns by physicians, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), and physician assistants (PAs).

In urban areas, PCPs prescribed at least 50% of each psychiatric medication class, except antipsychotics, which was 45.2%. BHSs prescribed 40.7% of antipsychotics and less than 25% of all other classes. In rural areas, percentages of psychiatric medications from PCPs were over 70% for each medication class, except antipsychotics, which was 60.1%. Primary care physicians provided most psychiatric medications, between 36% and 57% in urban areas and 47% and 65% in rural areas. Primary care APRNs provided up to 13% of prescriptions in rural areas, which was more than the amount prescribed by BHS physicians, expect for antipsychotics. Psychiatric mental health APRNs provided up to 7.5% of antipsychotics in rural areas, but their prescribing contribution among other classes ranged between 1.1% and 3.6%. PAs provided 2.5% and 3.4% of medications in urban areas and this increased to 3.9% and 5.1% in rural areas.