Friday, September 16, 2016

Mental Health Care Triage

What is Triage?

"Triage" is a term used in medicine, referring to the process of deciding the order in which patients should be seen and attended to, if many are waiting.

If you are waiting for something, such as for a table at a restaurant,  the first person to arrive is served first.  An even higher priority is also given to people who have made "reservations," or who have arranged their appointments in advance.

In an emergency room, a different system is needed.  Even if you have been in the waiting room for several hours with a broken ankle, a person just arriving with a heart attack must be seen right away, before you!   It generally would not work to make "reservations" at the emergency room, except maybe if you are on your way in an ambulance.

Triage involves not only deciding what order in which patients should be seen, it also involves deciding what type of service should be provided to each person.

If everyone with abdominal pain was sent to a surgeon, it would be inefficient...most cases of abdominal pain do not need surgical treatment.  If these non-surgical cases were all seen by the surgeon, then the surgeon would be too busy to deal with the true surgical emergencies!

In mental health care, it can be efficient to have a triage process.  But how to do this?


The most common strategy is to offer some form of "assessment" which then could guide a triage decision.  This usually would involve an interview.  It could involve filling out questionnaires.  Based on the results of the interview and the questionnaire results, a decision could be made about whether some form of counseling might be needed, or perhaps a visit to a physician, a referral to a psychiatrist, or even an urgent trip to the hospital.   In other cases, a bit of simple reassurance, simple lifestyle or self-care advice might be really helpful.

The benefits of an efficient triage process would be that others in the system could then see clients or patients whose particular problems or levels of severity were well-matched to the skills of the particular caregiver.  All caregivers in the system would spend less time dealing with situations that were outside their scope of experience or expertise.

Potential Problems 

What are some of the potential problems of a mental health triage process?

1) The first issue has to do with the reliance on a single interview, and on questionnaire data.  In a great many cases, this is an efficient, helpful process.  But in some cases, an ongoing relationship is needed to understand mental health issues.  People may not be willing to share sensitive issues with someone who will only be seeing them once.  People may not be willing to divulge sensitive information in a questionnaire, which will then be handed in to a stranger.   Some people may have a very clear reason to desire a therapeutic relationship of a particular type, without wanting to explain their reasons in detail to a stranger who would only be seeing them once.

So the triage system, involving interviews and questionnaires, must have the flexibility to accommodate situations of this type.  Basically, it should have strong consideration for patients' or clients' wishes for privacy, discretion, confidentiality, and therapeutic resources, while not being rigidly adherent to questionnaire or interview data.

A simple remedy for this problem can be for individual patients or clients to have the ability to make a direct request for a particular type of care, without having to "jump through the hoop" of a triage assessment visit.  Many people who desire a therapeutic relationship will not benefit from going over their history with a stranger who will not be seeing them in the future.  In fact, the triage step will just add to their stress, and could lead to a feeling of having to negotiate yet another bureaucracy.

2) The second issue has to do with the quality of life of people working in the system.  In my experience, emergency psychiatry is a very stressful area of mental health care.  Practitioners in this area can often become burned out or even cynical over time, if this is the only type of work that they are doing.  The reasons for this are not simply related to the severity of the problems seen in the emergency room:  it is also because emergency workers usually do not follow the patients or clients after their emergency visits.  Therefore, they do not get to see their patients or clients recover!  They may not have the satisfaction or enjoyment of working with someone over a period of time, and seeing their progress.    Furthermore, if they are only doing emergency or triage tasks, their clinical skills for doing other types of ongoing health care will weaken or atrophy.  

I believe that a big part of the joy of being a therapist or a physician, involves getting to know your clients and patients on an ongoing basis, sometimes for long periods of time.  It can be demoralizing and stressful to only be seeing people a single time, or only be seeing people who are severely ill.

There is a simple remedy for this problem:  in any triage system, or emergency care system, it can be valuable for different staff to take turns doing triage tasks.  Each staff person should also have the opportunity, at other times,  to follow some patients or clients for ongoing care.   This would help staff to maintain better morale, and to maintain better clinical skills beyond "assessment."

3) A third issue has to do with the risks of a supposedly "efficient" system becoming more and more like a mechanical or impersonal bureaucracy.   As questionnaire-based systems become more and more prevalent, we may start talking more and more about "PHQ-9" scores, and less and less about a person's story.   Furthermore, score-based assessments in mental health may lead to false conclusions about what is truly helpful.  For example, a person in great distress may enter an emergency room on a Friday night with an extremely high score.  That person might have an unpleasant experience on a stretcher in a noisy hallway on Friday night, then a frightening experience on a busy emergency ward for the next day.  On Sunday afternoon, the symptom questionnaire may be repeated, yielding a greatly reduced score.  The conclusion may be that the emergency room experience was profoundly helpful!   In this case, the symptom score diminished because of the passage of time, and perhaps because of a physical place that was safe in some ways.  Other types of harms may well have been done because of this experience (for example, the person may dread ever having to go to the hospital again), but this harm would not be detected on a cross-sectional symptom scoresheet.   The harm would be apparent, however, if we were to have a conversation with this person rather than just give them a questionnaire.

Symptom questionnaires are very imperfect guides, and should never be the foundation of any type of health care, especially in mental health  (see my previous post about questionnaires:  I do think they have their role, and people could be invited to use them, but there is a risk of both the patient or client, and the caregiver, paying too much attention to questionnaires, and too little attention to other aspects of care or need.

4) A fourth issue has to do with allocation of health care resources.  While triage could improve efficiency, and allow more people to get the help they need, it could also in some cases be an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle.  The same money and resources spent on a triage system could instead be spent simply hiring more counselors, who could manage their own triage.  In many private counseling regimes, a person seeking a counseling relationship is already "self-triaging" and can inquire on their own with the therapist about the possible types of care available or needed.  

This issue is similar to the Electronic Health Records (EHR) issue:  an innovative device, triage system, or "model" may be useful in some ways, but it must always be in service of a higher value, which is to provide personal, empathic, attentive, ongoing care to those who desire it, and to allow a healthy, balanced, meaningful work environment for therapists.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Electronic Health Records (EHR)

Electronic health records allow for a variety of improvements in medical practice and health care:

Communication between physicians can be improved.

Lab results can be coordinated and exchanged efficiently, with a reduction in the chance of results being overlooked.

Patients or clients of a health care service can become more directly involved in perusing their own health records, and therefore could have a more empowered, active role in their health care.

Some systems can also allow prescriptions, other treatments, and symptoms to be tracked efficiently over time.

Patients could also contribute information (such as providing a history, filling out questionnaires about symptoms, etc.) directly into the system, which could make the clinical time with a health care provider more efficient and more personal, less focused on "data gathering."

Problems with EHR

Yet, there are a variety of problems associated with the use of computerized health record systems.  

Impact on Rapport

I think the worst problem is the potential impact on rapport during a health care visit.  If your physician or therapist is fumbling with a keyboard, and staring at a screen, instead of paying attention to you, this is poor quality of care, and threatens the therapeutic relationship.  This is potentially harmful to clients or patients, and is also potentially harmful to the well-being of the physician or therapist.  

You could compare this to having an "appointment" with a friend...if your friend is busy checking a cell phone or typing on a computer keyboard during dinner, or during a forest walk, the technology will harm your friendship!  When such behaviour becomes more frequent, more of a norm, more trendy, people tend to simply go along with such things, rather than insist that the device or gadget be turned off.  I think it would be better to complain to your friend about it instead, and to insist on having a conversation, or to insist on just walking quietly through the forest together!  

In some of the meetings I have attended over the past few years, I have seen people enthusiastically talking about new apps and gadgets in therapeutic settings (such as collaborating with clients using an ipad), yet part of the irony of these meetings was that the presenters or audience members were themselves so engrossed with their laptops or with their other gadgets that they had very little eye contact or social connection with those around them, and perhaps not a lot of awareness that their gadget-preoccupation was even a bit of an annoyance to their neighbours.  

Corporate Influence: 20 Billion Dollars!

Another problem with electronic records has to do with economic factors.   The EHR market is worth about $15-20 billion dollars globally, and is growing rapidly! *   This is enough money to fund 400 000 therapists, each earning $50 000 per year.

The corporations producing EHR software and machinery profit financially from sales. Clinics or hospitals using EHR will need educational sessions with representatives of the tech companies.  This is a potential conflict of interest issue:  it is similar to having medical education sessions organized and led by pharmaceutical reps.  The educational sessions are marketing opportunities for representatives of the EHR software company to consolidate adherence to a product.  Much of this education is sincerely useful for staff and beneficial for clients or patients, and the educational sessions may come with sincerely positive intentions.   But there are biases favouring a continuing business relationship with the software corporation, separate from considerations of patient or client care.  

Literature Review of EHR Problems

What does the academic literature have to say about this?  We have a pertinent article just published:  Susan Hingle, in Annals of Internal Medicine (Sep 6, 2016, doi 10:7326/M16-1757), reviews the use of electronic health records. Here is a quote from this article: 

Sinsky and colleagues confirm what many practicing physicians have claimed: Electronic health records (EHRs), in their current state, occupy a lot of physicians' time and draw attention away from their direct interactions with patients and from their personal lives. Observers documented that for every hour of direct clinical time with patients, physicians spent 2 additional hours on EHR and desk work, and physicians reported spending up to an additional 1 to 2 hours of after-hours personal time completing documentation and EHR tasks. These observations have important implications for patient care and outcomes...A recent study found that physicians who use EHRs and computerized physician order entry have decreased satisfaction and a higher risk for professional burnout. Physicians who burn out are at a significantly greater risk for depression and suicidal ideation, and there is also concern that they are more likely than satisfied colleagues to provide lower-quality patient care and to leave clinical practice early, although this is difficult to fully measure...Now is the time to go beyond complaining about EHRs and other practice hassles and to make needed changes to the health care system that will redirect our focus from the computer screen to our patients and help us rediscover the joy of medicine.

Here is another article, expressing similar concerns, from the Washington Examiner, published in October 2014 by Richard Pollock:

Another critical article, from the point of view of nursing staff in a hospital:

Here's a good article published in 2016 by Suzanne Coven, in Stat:

Despite these concerns, I do acknowledge the potentially useful role of computers, electronic records systems, therapeutic apps, etc.  But I think this gadgetry must never be focused on at the expense of highly personalized care for each client or patient.  As I have said elsewhere, I think these innovations can be truly great advances, but they can be a bit like giving children gifts at Christmas or birthdays:  children may get excited about a new toy, and may even become conditioned to expect more and more expensive toys as time goes by.  The toys may be great toys!  They could even be "educational"!

But the "gift" that children (and all the rest of us) really want and need is care and attention from loved ones.  Without this, the toys are worthless, and may even cause the children to have a deteriorating, materialistic quality of life.  

The impact of gadgetry and computers in health care affects not only clients or patients, but also caregivers, clinicians, therapists, and office staff.  It is important to consider staff quality of life, and staff satisfaction with work, as essential components in choosing health care strategies.  "Efficiency" and "optimal data collection" may seem to be desirable goals, but such efficiency is insidiously negative if it does not allow for a healthy workplace environment.  This is similar to managing a nation's economy:  a bottom-line view of maximizing economic efficiency may lead to increased overall financial wealth in a society; this is easy to measure, and therefore could be irresistible for policy-makers to follow.   But such optimization of efficiency and wealth can often lead to a decline in the morale and well-being of the population, if it is not balanced by other factors.  A reduction in efficiency, if it means more time for family, and better care of the environment, can sometimes lead to far greater wealth than anything money can buy.  

So in order to move forward with this issue, I do not suggest that we abandon EHR technology.  It is a potentially useful and innovative tool.  But we must never let our tools or toys distract us from providing a caring, empathic, human interaction.  We must never let a pursuit of efficiency or the acquisition of data have a higher order of importance  than caring, empathic, personalized health care. And we must be wary of corporate influences on health care policy, especially when large amounts of money are involved.

If you are affected by this issue, I encourage you to offer constructive feedback to your health care provider.