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How to Improve Systemic Problems in Mental Health Care

Our mental health care system has numerous gaps. Defending and dealing with gaps in quality and delivery can feel overwhelming for psychiatric clinicians and lead to feelings of helplessness.

Although psychiatric clinicians learn to take care of patients one at a time, most are not trained to think of their “system” or to apply scientific thinking toward improving systems. They try to deal with their increasing workload and compensate for systemic shortcomings by working harder, which comes at a personal cost and contributes to an epidemic of burnout. Unfortunately, this does not always lead to better systems. Advancements like newer therapies and electronic medical records come with unique challenges. Some solutions like thorough documentation, or an over-reliance on auditing to ensure quality, create additional burdens. Although it might not be well-known that some experts believe 30% to 50% of all health care activities are wasteful, clinicians likely feel this to be the case.1

Two decades ago, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) jointly identified competencies for resident physicians to include “practice-based learning and improvement (PBLI)” and “systems-based practice (SBP).”2 PBLI included systematically analyzing practice and implementing changes to improve it. SBP included working in inter-professional teams to enhance quality and safety and identifying system errors.

So, how can we best prepare ourselves in the health workforce to “spot and repair” wasteful processes, to think and act as problem-solvers, and to design better systems?

Fortunately, a vast knowledge base of improvement science already exists. Improvement science has been widely utilized in non-health care settings like the manufacturing and aviation industries and has also been embraced by health care quality and safety pioneers outside of behavioral health.3,4

My own entry into this world of improvement science happened while trying to solve quality and safety problems in my organization. I came across a brilliant article titled “Fixing Healthcare From the Inside, Today.”5 The author asked, “How can health care professionals ensure that the quality of their service matches their knowledge and aspirations?” This article made me wonder about the application of improvement science to psychiatry, and it led me to discover lean methodology, an improvement approach that matured at the Toyota car company.

Systems engineering, at its core, is a field that utilizes systems thinking principles to design, manage, and optimize complex systems of care. Along my journey, I got introduced to a brilliant systems engineer, Antonio DePaolo, who became an inspiring collaborator and the coauthor of our book together on the subject.

We codesigned the course “Lean Problem Solving” for our organization. Participants were asked to bring any safety, quality, delivery, cost, or morale problem to the course, and they would learn to apply improvement principles to their problem. This course, along with other improvement activities, gradually changed our organization’s culture.

We began solving chronic and complex clinical challenges in our system, such as aggression toward others, unnecessary antipsychotics in patients with dementia, and transitions of care for patients with severe cooccurring disorders. We were also able to improve operational challenges like access to care, staffing shortages, and care costs while improving communication with others.

Here is an example of continuous improvement from an acute care unit that describes the process of improving transitions of care for patients who were being discharged from an inpatient level of care to outpatient care. This busy inpatient unit could have anywhere between 1 and 8 discharges a day (with as many patients admitted that evening). High-discharge days were not only busy and stressful but could also be occasions for delays, errors of omission and commission, as well as dissatisfied family members, staff, and patients.

As we began observing and studying the discharge process, we realized that one of the factors that led to delays was that patients’ belongings were scattered in multiple locations in a disorganized fashion. Gathering and organizing all of the patient’s belongings at discharge could sometimes take 1 to 2 hours of a staff member’s time. Social workers would ask a van driver or a family member to come at a particular time, but they had no idea how long it would take to collect the patient’s belongings from the unit, security, and the pharmacy. This process led to waiting, frustration, and mistakes—and such mistakes would lead to calls about missing scripts, forgotten items, and even lost valuables.

This observation led to multiple improvements: an organized belongings room, a discharge checklist, and a decision to prepare everything for a discharging patient the day prior to discharge. Today, we can be sure that when patients leave the unit, they will reliably get all their belongings and everything they need on time, without anyone having to wait even for a minute.

Continuous improvement is a cyclical iterative process. Next, the team decided to improve the time it took to complete discharge summaries, with the goal of all summaries being completed within 24 hours of discharge. The team then utilized the discharge checklist to ensure that every patient who needed nicotine replacement therapy, naloxone, or their inhalers would have these reliably given to them. Once the team learned this way of working, every new problem became an opportunity to apply this improvement toolkit. Continuous improvement became a way to sustain improvements and create empowered and engaged team members who kept striving to improve quality and outcomes.

Whatever worked in our complex setting is certainly applicable to any mental health care setting. Our book lays out the need for such an approach; introduces basic improvement principles and the developmental steps of building improvement knowledge and skills; and enumerates a systematic method of solving complex problems. It also discusses the support needed to create and maintain such a learning and improvement culture.

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