Readers Write: The Key Ingredient to Improving Outcomes in Behavioral Health: Measurement-Based Care
The Key Ingredient to Improving Outcomes in Behavioral Health: Measurement-Based Care
By Jason Washburn, PhD
Jason Washburn, PhD is a professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL.
The burden of mental disorders is well known. Mental disorders are common, resulting in significant disability and contribute to — and complicate — chronic health conditions. Most mental disorders are untreated, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only further highlighted significant disparities in access to treatment. Effective pharmacologic and psychological treatments are available, yet outcomes in routine practice are often weaker than what is found in randomized controlled trials.
Measurement-based care (MBC) can improve the outcomes of routine mental health practice. MBC involves routinely and systematically evaluating mental health symptoms, ideally before or during a clinical encounter, to both inform and direct mental health treatment. For example, in 2015, a randomized controlled study of MBC in the treatment of depression found a much higher remission rate among the MBC group compared to usual treatment (73.8% vs. 28.8%).
What accounts for the impact of MBC on outcomes? MBC can help providers track the response of their patients to treatments, alert providers to when patients need to adjust treatment, and aid clinical decision making. For example, MBC can facilitate changes in dosage and medications, improve case conceptualization, identify the need to change treatment modality and targets, or to increase or decrease service frequency and intensity. MBC can also facilitate communication between patients and providers, improving the therapeutic relationship and shared decision making.
Patients like MBC. Patients accept MBC practices and report that it improves their care. When implemented correctly, providers also like MBC, recognizing its many benefits and utility in treating patients. Although providers often express fears about the burden of MBC, successful implementation of MBC usually results in little to no barriers or burdens for providers.
Despite the clear benefits of MBC, routine use of MBC remains rare. The available evidence suggests that less than 20% of psychiatrists, psychologists, and master’s level providers use any meaningful level of MBC. Why do so few providers use MBC?
Concerns with the practicality of implementing MBC is one of the primary barriers to utilization of MBC. Practical concerns can include the time required to complete measures, the administrative burden of administering measures, and disruptions to patient flow and processes. Another barrier is the reliance of providers on clinical judgment. Even when providers recognize that MBC is likely to improve their treatments, providers may fall back on their clinical judgemnt when the infrastructure for MBC is not available. Unfortunately, clinical judgment is not always accurate: One study found that providers were only able to accurately detect deterioration in their patients 21.4% of the time.
Although adoption of MBC has been slow, technological solutions hold promise for accelerating the integration of MBC into routine mental health care. Many – if not all – of the perceived and actual barriers associated with MBC can be addressed through technology infrastructure that supports fully automated MBC systems. Automated MBC systems can be integrated into existing clinical workflows, including the electronic health record, providing a seamless experience for both the patient and the provider.
Accelerating the adoption of MBC, especially through automated systems that provide access to outcome data at the individual and organizational level, will not only improve care, but increase access to care. Given that MBC is associated with faster response to treatment (e.g., 4.5 weeks in MBC group vs. 8.1 weeks in usual care), the increased efficiencies gained in using MBC allows for greater throughput of patients and increased access. By monitoring remissions rates, MBC can also help to identify when patients no longer need a specific level of care, facilitating quicker transitions to lower levels of care and termination, thereby increasing access for new patients to enter the system.
The available evidence is clear: MBC holds promise in improving mental health care. To actualize the potential of MBC, however, providers and the organizations that support them must make MBC a routine expectation in the provision of mental health treatment.