BALTIMORE (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – A team of physicians and mental health experts at Johns Hopkins Hospital is trying something new: combining mental health services with medical ones. Hospital leadership hopes the experiment will pay off in shorter lengths of stay, lower readmission rates, and better overall patient care.

“We’re still collecting that data,” Melissa Richardson, the hospital’s director of care coordination, said in an interview. “We also will look at the impact on staffing ratios on the units. For example, has the number of patient observers gone down? Has the overall severity of certain cases on the unit been reduced by embedding mental health workers there?”

The medical-surgical mental health team debuted in April, and is separate from the hospital’s other psychiatric services. Comprised of a social worker, a nurse practitioner, a nurse care coordinator, and an attending psychiatrist, the team typically works a regular day shift, beginning each morning with patient chart reviews prepared by medical-surgical personnel. They discuss which patients will be seen by whom, since all team members are trained to do psychiatric evaluations.

Not all medical patients require psychiatric care, but according to the program’s clinical director and attending psychiatrist, Dr. Patrick T. Triplett, up to 38% of all medical admissions have a psychiatric comorbidity. Addressing those comorbidities while patients are in the hospital often leads to improved outcomes.

The team’s social worker connects patients with the appropriate outpatient mental health services in the community, and the team’s nurse care coordinator arranges any necessary transfers from the medical-surgical units to the inpatient psychiatric unit. Dr. Triplett and the psychiatric nurse practitioner are the only two team members who can diagnose and prescribe. Dr. Triplett’s time is billed as consultation services, and the hospital absorbs the cost of the rest of the team, according to Ms. Richardson.

‘Complex medically ill’ patients

As some procedures and medical treatments have shifted to the outpatient setting in recent years, and joint replacements or acute conditions such as myocardial infarctions can be managed successfully in shorter stays, more complicated patients, such as joint replacement patients who develop delirium, have been left on the medical-surgical unit, said Dr. Constantine G. Lyketsos , the Elizabeth Plank Althouse Professor at Johns Hopkins Bayview, Baltimore.

“Also, these days, up to 20% of our admissions are linked to opioids. Then, there are the chronically mentally ill. They tend to be a population with high rates of obesity, smoking, and diabetes, so they end up in the hospital with higher-level, more complicated conditions, that because of the disintegration of the mental health system, do receive neither good psychiatric nor outpatient medical care,” Dr. Lyketsos, also chief of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Bayview, said in an interview.

This surge in the number of complex medically ill patients has led to a growing number of hospitals nationwide calling upon psychiatrists for help in improving overall care. Hopkins is only the latest to join the ranks of other institutions such as Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn (N.Y.), Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., and New York–Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

The progenitor of this collaborative inpatient care model is Yale New Haven (Conn.) Hospital. The behavioral intervention team (BIT) at Yale New Haven includes nurses, social workers, and psychiatrists who proactively screen for and address behavioral barriers to care for medical patients with a co-occurring mental illness, said Dr. Hocang B. Lee , one of the psychiatrists who helped created the model in 2008. Dr. Lee is Yale’s psychological medicine section chief and director of the school’s Psychological Medicine Research Center. He also is an associate professor of psychiatry and an associate clinical professor of nursing.

“The goal was to create a proactive model of care, not the reactive one that is traditional consultation-liaison psychiatry,” Dr. Lee said in an interview. “Before the BIT model, medical teams often missed behavioral issues or made consultation requests too late in the course of hospitalization to avoid psychiatric crisis.”

LOS, costs reduced

A study published recently shows that such integrated models are effective at reducing lengths of stay and at helping hospitals cut costs (Psychosomatics. 2016 May-June;57:258-63). That study showed that compared with the traditional consult-liaison model, comanagement of patients at New York–Presbyterian/Columbia hospital (NYPCH) for 1 year resulted in a reduction in lengths of stay by 1.19 days (P less than .003). In addition, the recuperation of 2,889 “lost” patient days, defined as the number of days when beds are occupied by patients but reimbursement is denied.

“The hospital is not making money off of us, but they’re losing less money because of us. That’s good!” Dr. Philip R. Muskin, chief of consultation-liaison psychiatry at New York–Presbyterian/Columbia, said in an interview.

Patients at New York Presbyterian have been comanaged since 2004 when, according to Dr. Muskin, a donor gift specifically intended for such a purpose was matched by the hospital’s department of medicine. The unspent money was enough to cover the cost of a consultation-liaison psychiatrist to round full time as an attending with the medical team.

“We were lucky at NYPCH, because someone gave us the gift to hire a full-time psychiatrist we could embed into the medical team,” Dr. Muskin said. “But there is no one right way to deliver collaborative care in the inpatient setting.”

The NYPCH program has grown to include a second full-time and one part-time psychiatrist, serving about half of all medical services at the campus, with plans to hire more. There is also a social worker to assist with outplacement services. Dr. Muskin said he is currently looking to hire a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

‘Nurses love us’

Restoration of staff morale is another benefit to this kind of practice, according to Maureen Lewis, an accredited psychiatric nurse practitioner who is part of the Hopkins integrated team.

“Med-surge nurses love us. Patients who come in with an overdose or who have any psychiatric conditions but need to have their medical comorbidities dealt with first, they are at their sickest with their psychiatric illnesses when they first arrive,” Ms. Lewis said. “It’s the med-surge nurses who have to care for them, but it’s not their comfort zone or their skill set. They like that we are helping them manage the patient.”

A decline in the number of assaults on the nursing staff also has been recorded since the Hopkins program began, Dr. Lyketsos said.

The psychiatrists themselves tend to be happier, too. “Knowing the cases before you even walk up on the unit is a huge benefit,” Dr. Triplett said. “To have to dive into an emergency all the time is just exhausting. It changes your relationship with the patient. When you’re not in that crisis mode, the patient isn’t a ‘problem’ anymore.”

A formal assessment of the entire medical-surgical staff satisfaction involved in the Hopkins program also is underway, said Ms. Richardson, the director of care coordination.

Having psychiatrists at the fore of this evolution in care provides more opportunities for training, too.

The comanagement model gives medical staff a chance to learn more not just about the direct care of complex behaviorally disordered patients, but also to understand their own emotions and states of mind as they interact with these patients. The teaching happens naturally as the team discusses patients while making rounds, Dr. Muskin said. “That’s really an integral part of what consult-liaison psychiatry is supposed to be about, anyway.”

By helping the medical staff reflect on their experiences, Dr. Muskin said, psychiatrists are helping to change the culture of inpatient medicine. “Once you change the culture, if you keep the things that brought it about in place, it doesn’t change back.”

Creating bridge services

A problem with this kind of inpatient collaborative care model is that hospitals that run them aren’t able to control all the variables associated with the cost of providing them.

The hope is that by spending more up front to identify and treat high-risk behavioral health patients, they won’t need readmission; but if the appropriate follow-up care can’t be found on the outpatient side, they could still end up back in the hospital, driving up readmission rates and possibly lengths of stay.

To address such contingencies, Hopkins has participated in state-sponsored partnerships for improving community care and is using monies from accountable care organization funding to create bridge services. The hospital system also has 14 primary care practices that have embedded psychiatric services, and the plan is to create a team to care for more complicated patients who need care 60-90 days after discharge.

For Dr. Lyketsos, however, fixing what he says is a broken mental health system isn’t up to the hospital alone. “We’re not going to be able to bring about real change without working with our legislators and our payers. It’s a complex problem that needs a complex solution. But there is a commonality of mind that we need to fix things, that patients need better care – and that this is a good place to start.”

wmcknight@frontlinemedcom.com

On Twitter @whitneymcknight

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