Practice Economics

Reframing the problem seen as way to ease inpatient bed shortage



If an individual with schizophrenia presents to the emergency department, there’s about a 1 in 2 chance that person will wind up in an inpatient psychiatric bed, or transferred to a residential psychiatric facility. As reimbursement to hospitals for psychiatric beds decreases, there’s decreasing incentive for hospitals to maintain inpatient psychiatry services.

Decreasing numbers of hospital beds means strategic thinking about outpatient services is more important than ever, to help avert the crises that bring patients to EDs and to run-ins with the justice system. In some parts of the country, though, the downstream effects of cutbacks and increased demand are overwhelming the system.

For Dr. Carl C. Bell, the combination of shrinking resources and growing need feels like a prescription for disaster in Chicago. Dr. Bell, a psychiatrist who has spent decades providing community mental health services there, saw a relatively robust mental health infrastructure crumble when municipal belt tightening resulted in the consolidation of 13 mental health centers down to just 6.

As individuals with serious mental illness lost access to such outpatient resources as therapy, medication management, supported housing, and employment assistance, jail populations swelled. The Cook County jail became known as “the largest mental health center in the state of Illinois,” said Dr. Bell. He’s not sure he sees a good solution for the near term, but he holds out hope that innovative solutions are on the horizon.

Telepsychiatry offers an eminently workable solution to scarcity and geographic separation in some areas. Dr. David Baldes, a psychiatrist at St. Luke’s Health Care System in Duluth, Minn., “sees” patients via his computer several hours a week. He’s able to care for the sickest of the patients with mental illness served by primary care clinics along the Iron Range in northern Minnesota, helping keep this population out of the emergency department and fending off brushes with the law that are all too common among those with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder.

A rural primary care doctor consults with Dr. David Baldes, a psychiatrist in Minnesota. Erin Metzger

A rural primary care doctor consults with Dr. David Baldes, a psychiatrist in Minnesota.

“The people I see tend to be really sick,” said Dr. Baldes, “and the number of psychiatrists per capita is basically zero” on the Iron Range. Although the area is served by a federally funded community mental health center, it’s extremely difficult to attract and retain psychiatrists to the remote area.

His ability to provide care for patients with serious mental illness helps their primary care providers “not feel so much like they’re on an island,” he said. He enjoys the collaboration and support he’s able to provide for the primary physicians as well.

Getting things started wasn’t hard: “The technology was actually quite simple to set up,” he said, noting that psychiatry is an ideal discipline for virtual care. “We don’t touch the patient. Our exam is our conversation with the patient,” he said.

Another advantage of telepsychiatry, Dr. Baldes said, is that there’s no stigma associated with visiting one’s primary care provider. “My patients go to their regular doctor’s office, they check in with the receptionist, and nobody really knows why they are there.” This can be a particular advantage in some of the more conservative rural communities served by the St. Luke’s program.

This mode of care soon feels completely natural for physician and patient, he said. “Especially for our generation; we’re very comfortable with FaceTime, with Skype, and generally with communicating electronically,” Dr. Baldes said.

“What patients really want is to be able to do these visits from their home,” he said. Because of privacy and security concerns, patients still go to the primary care office to have their virtual visits with Dr. Baldes.

Telepsychiatry’s promise is not limited to rural areas. “Any time people are resource limited, transportation is always an issue,” Dr. Baldes said. The suburbs and exurbs of many American cities are increasingly populated by low-income individuals forced out of gentrifying city centers into areas with fewer mental health resources and fewer transportation options. Telepsychiatry could be useful in many settings, he said.

A more fully integrated suite of services, the Collaborative Care Model (CCM), has been piloted in five locations nationwide and was the subject of an April 14, 2016, congressional briefing. This care model goes beyond co-location and collaboration to encompass a specific set of team members providing specific services, with ongoing tracking of validated outcome measures.

Dr. Erik Vanderlip, professor of psychiatry and medical informatics at the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, coauthored a recent report sharing evidence of the successful implementation of collaborative care. He said the CCM really represents a shift in thinking. “The lack of psychiatric beds isn’t the problem. The problem is the lack of affordable, accessible, high-quality mental health services,” and collaborative care seeks to meet that need.

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