Applied Evidence

Revisiting our approach to behavioral health referrals

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This system of matching referrals to behavioral health practitioners’ historical effectiveness seeks to strengthen patient outcomes.



Approximately 1 in 4 people ages 18 years and older and 1 in 3 people ages 18 to 25 years had a mental illness in the past year, according to the 2021 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.1 The survey also found that adults ages 18 to 25 years had the highest rate of serious mental illness but the lowest treatment rate compared to other adult age groups.1 Unfortunately, more than 60% of patients receiving mental health treatment fail to benefit to a clinically meaningful degree.2

However, there is growing evidence that referring patients to behavioral health practitioners (BHPs) with outcome-measured skills that meet the patient’s specific needs can have a dramatic and positive impact. There are 2 main steps to pairing patients with an appropriate BHP: (1) use of measurement-based care data that can be analyzed at the patient and therapist level, and (2) data-driven referrals that pair patients with BHPs based on such routine outcome monitoring data (paired-on outcome data).

Psychotherapy’s slow road toward measurement-based care

Routine outcome monitoring is the systematic measurement of symptoms and functioning during treatment. It serves multiple functions, including program evaluation and benchmarking of patient improvement rates. Moreover, routine outcome monitoring–­derived feedback (based on repeated patient outcome measurements) can inform personalized and responsive care decisions throughout treatment.

For all intents and purposes, routine outcome monitoring plus feedback is synonymous with measurement-based care, which is becoming the preferred term in psychotherapy.3 Although measurement-based care is often the standard of practice for treating physical health conditions, the adoption of measurement-based care practices for treating mental health conditions remains low.3 The implementation of routine outcome monitoring is the lynchpin of measurement-based care, which in psychotherapy includes3:

  • routinely administered symptom/functioning measure, ideally before each clinical encounter,
  • practitioner review of these patient-level data,
  • patient review of these data with their practitioner, and
  • collaborative reevaluation of the person-specific treatment plan informed by these data.


Violeta W is a 33-year-old woman who presented to her family physician for her annual wellness exam. Prior to the exam, the medical assistant administered a Patient Health ­Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9) to screen for depressive symptoms. Ms. W’s score was 20 out of 27, suggestive of depression. To further assess the severity of depressive symptoms and their effect on daily function, the physician reviewed responses to the questionnaire with her and discussed treatment options. Ms. W was most interested in trying a low-dose selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).

At her follow-up visit 4 weeks later, the medical assistant re-administered the PHQ-9. The physician then reviewed Ms. W’s responses­ with her and, based on Ms. W’s subjective report and objective symptoms (still a score of 20 out of 27 on the PHQ-9), increased her SSRI dose. At each subsequent visit, Ms. W completed a PHQ-9 and reviewed responses and depressive symptoms with her physician.

The value of measurement-based care in mental health care

A narrative review by Lewis et al3 of 21 randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs) across a range of age groups (eg, adolescents, young adults, adults), disorders (eg, anxiety, mood), and settings (eg, outpatient, inpatient) found that in at least 9 review articles, measurement-based care was associated with significantly improved outcomes vs usual care (ie, treatment without routine outcome monitoring plus feedback). The average increase in treatment effect size was about 30% when treatment was accompanied by measurement-based care.3

Continue to: Moreover, a recent within-patient meta-analysis...


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