Beefed Up Inpatient/Outpatient Care Transition Key to Suicide Prevention

Bruce Jancin

July 07, 2020

The care transition period between inpatient psychiatric hospitalization and initiation of outpatient mental health services is a time of extraordinarily heightened suicide risk that has been woefully neglected, according to speakers from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention at the virtual annual meeting of the American Association of Suicidology.

This transition period traditionally has been a time when nobody really takes responsibility for patient care. In an effort to close this potentially deadly gap in services, the alliance recently has issued a report entitled, "Best Practices in Care Transitions for Individuals with Suicide Risk: Inpatient Care to Outpatient Care." The recommendations focus on specific, innovative, evidence-based strategies that health care systems can use to prevent patients from falling through the cracks in care, mainly by implementing protocols aimed at fostering interorganizational teamwork between inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services.

"I believe that improving care transitions in the United States is the area where we can likely save the most lives. It's within our grasp if we can just do this better," declared Richard McKeon, PhD, MPH, chief of the Suicide Prevention Branch at the Center for Mental Health Services within SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

He cited a recent meta-analysis that concluded that the risk of suicide during the first week post discharge after psychiatric hospitalization is a staggering 300 times greater than in the general population, while in the first month, the risk is increased 200-fold. The meta-analysis included 29 studies encompassing 3,551 suicides during the first month and 24 studies reporting 1,928 suicides during the first week post discharge (BMJ Open. 2019 Mar 23;9[3]:e023883. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-023883).

Everyone in the mental health field as well as patients and their families should know those statistics, but they don't.

"I think it's natural for people to think someone who's been discharged from an inpatient unit or the emergency department is not at risk, when in reality it's still a high-risk time. Suicide risk is not like a light switch that you can just switch off," the clinical psychologist observed.

He cited other harrowing statistics that underscore the vast problem of poor care transitions. Nationally, fully one-third of patients don't complete a single outpatient visit within the first 30 days after discharge from inpatient behavioral health care. And one in seven people who die by suicide have had contact with inpatient mental health services in the year before they died.

"That doesn't mean that inpatient care did not do everything that they could do. What it does reflect is the need to make sure that there's follow-up care after inpatient discharge. Too often, people don't get the follow-up care that they need. And the research literature is clear that intervention can save lives," Dr. McKeon said.

Panelist Becky Stoll, LCSW, vice president for crisis and disaster management at Centerstone Health in Nashville, Tenn., noted, "We see a lot of no-shows on the outpatient side, because nobody ever asked the patients if they can actually get to the outpatient appointment that's been made.

"We have got to figure out this care transition and do better. The road to mental health is paved with Swiss cheese. There are so many holes to fall into, even if you know how to navigate the system – and most of the people we're serving don't know how," observed Ms. Stoll, who, like Dr. McKeon, was among the coauthors of the alliance's guidelines on best practices in care transitions.

The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention is a public/private partnership whose goal is to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, which was developed by the alliance and the U.S. Surgeon General. The alliance includes mental health professionals as well as influential leaders from the military, journalism, entertainment, railroad, health insurance, law enforcement, defense, education, technology, and other industries.

Dr. McKeon and Ms. Stall were joined by Karen Johnson, MSW, another coauthor of the guidelines. They shared highlights of the report.

Inpatient Provider Strategies

Discharge and crisis safety planning should begin upon admission, according to Ms. Johnson, senior vice president for clinical services and division compliance at Universal Health Services, which owns and operates more than 200 behavioral health facilities across the United States.

Inpatient and outpatient care providers need to sit down and develop collaborative protocols and negotiate a memorandum of understanding regarding expectations, which absolutely must include procedures to ensure timely electronic delivery of medical records and other key documents to the outpatient care providers. The inpatient providers need to work collaboratively with the patient, family, and community support resources to develop a safety plan – including reduced access to lethal mean – as part of predischarge planning.

Among the strategies routinely employed on the inpatient side at Universal Health Services are advance scheduling of an initial outpatient appointment within 24-72 hours post discharge. Also, someone on the inpatient team is tasked with connecting with the outpatient provider prior to discharge to develop rapport.

"If our outpatient providers are located in our facility, as many of them are, we ask them to come in and attend inpatient team meetings to identify and meet with patients who are appropriate for continuing care in outpatient settings," she explained. "A soft, warm handoff is critical."

At these team meetings, the appropriateness of step-down care in the form of partial hospitalization or intensive outpatient care is weighed. Someone from the inpatient side is charged with maintaining contact with the patient until after the first outpatient appointment. Ongoing caring contact in the form of brief, encouraging postcards, emails, or texts that do not require a response from the patient should be maintained for several months.

Strategies for Outpatient Providers

Ms. Stoll is a big believer in the guideline-recommended practice of notifying the inpatient provider that the patient kept the outpatient appointment, along with having a system for red-flagging no-shows for prompt follow-up by a crisis management team.

She and her colleagues at Centerstone Health have conducted two studies of an intensive patient outreach program designed for the first 30 days of the care transition. The program included many elements of the alliance's best practices guidelines. The yearlong first study, funded by Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee, documented zero suicides and 92% freedom from emergency department visits during the care transition period, along with greater than $400,000 savings in health care costs, compared with usual care. The second study, funded by SAMHSA, showed much the same over a 2-year period.

She emphasized that this was not a high-tech, intensive intervention. She characterized it, instead as "high-touch follow-up.

"It's some staff and a phone and a laptop, nothing fancy, just a person who's competent and confident and skilled with a laptop. With that, you can do some pretty amazing stuff: Get people what they need, keep them alive, and oh, guess what? You can also save a lot of health care dollars that can be put back into the system," Ms. Stoll said.

She recognizes that it's a lot to ask busy outpatient providers to leave their practice during the workday to participate in inpatient team meetings addressing discharge planning, as recommended in the alliance guidelines. But in this regard, she sees a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, in that it forces health professionals to rely upon newly opened channels of telemedicine.

"COVID-19 is giving us an opportunity to do things in a different way. Things don't just have to be done in person. Now that we've opened up new channels of telehealth, I'm really excited that we're almost in a beta test that we've dreamed about for decades, where we can do things in a more innovative way," she said.

Dr. McKeon agreed that reimbursement issues have long impeded efforts to improve the inpatient to outpatient care transition. He added that it will be really important that adequate reimbursement of remote forms of care remain in place after COVID-19 fades.

"This is exactly the kind of thing that's needed to improve care transitions," according to Dr. McKeon.

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