June 20, 2023

Tackling the Crisis in Behavioral Health Access and Placement

In a recent podcast, ABOUT (in partnership with the Baldrige Foundation) co-hosts Dr. Charles (Chuck) Peck and Darin Vercillo, M.D., chief medical officer of ABOUT, talk with Kenneth (K.C.) Johnson, CEO of HealthSource Integrated Solutions, about how technology can be used to help people struggling with behavioral health crises get the services they need.   


The episode, titled Tackling the Crisis in Behavioral Health Access and Placement, explores the problems Americans with behavioral health issues currently face in accessing services, particularly beds. Johnson, who has more than 20 years of experience in healthcare operations and management, explains how technology can be used to orchestrate care quickly and efficiently for behavioral health patients, enabling them to get the services they need – including beds – in a timelier fashion.  


Asked how the lack of care coordination for people in immediate need of in-patient behavioral healthcare impacts emergency departments (EDs), Johson says, “If you’re in a crisis, you go to the emergency room. Law enforcement is taking people directly to the emergency rooms and dropping them off. And emergency room providers, who cannot turn away people, are being asked to just keep them.” 


A chaotic ED is a poor environment for a person experiencing a behavioral health crisis, Johnson says, but it is common for patients to be “boarded” (kept in the ED for a day or more) while providers rely on outmoded processes and technologies to orchestrate care. Boarding patients awaiting behavioral health services can wreak havoc in already understaffed EDs. 


“It doesn’t matter if you show up with a broken arm or in the middle of a behavioral health crisis,” Johnson says. “There are certain protocols a patient goes through where that get triaged by the nurse and seen by a physician, who might order some labs or start treating that patient.”  


If the ED is operating at peak capacity, the delays begin piling on top of each other, preventing patients who need behavioral health care, and may be in danger of harming themselves, from getting immediate treatment. Meanwhile, staffers slog through calls to behavioral health facilities, one by one, searching for a bed – a process that is repeated for every person at the ED in crisis. 


Digital care orchestration tools 

While long-term solutions to this crisis must include additional behavioral health resources, there are short-term solutions that can help ease the crisis today, Johnson explains. For example, a 1,200+ staffed bed non-profit health system in the northeast where Johnson worked before joining HealthSource raised capital for a construction project to create a part of the ED that would be dedicated to behavioral health. 


Not every hospital or health system, however, can raise capital or has the space for an ED expansion project to accommodate behavioral health patients. But they can deploy digital platforms that enable providers to coordinate care for patients struggling with behavioral health issues. 


That’s what HealthSource did when it partnered with ABOUT to implement an end-to-end care orchestration platform. “We’ve given case managers the ability cast a broad net electronically – basically a broadcast – seeking a bed for a particular mental health patient in a safe, HIPAA compliant manner to multiple sites all at the same time,” Johnson says. “That way they aren’t picking up the phone can call these facilities individually or faxing back and forth.” 


The ABOUT platform also streamlines the patient transition process by enabling the elimination of unnecessary human intervention by creating “an auto-accept policy where we don’t have to yank a physician out of surgery to approve this patient for transfer,” says Dr. Vercillo.  


A long-term benefit of the ABOUT platform is its ability to generate data around the transfer and referral processes, allowing EDs and hospitals to collect data about their specific needs (geriatric beds, adolescent beds, etc.) and pain points, Johnson says. 


Over the remainder of the podcast, Johnson and Drs. Peck and Vercillo talk about how dealing with behavioral health crises leads to staff burnout in the ED, the specific challenges of rural healthcare facilities, and how acute care and behavioral health facilities must work with each other and law enforcement to better orchestrate care. 


Listen to the enlightened discussion in its entirety here.