M Health Fairview’s new approach to mental health crises shows reduction in hospital admissions

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Across the country, health care providers have reported more cases of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, including at M Health Fairview.

“The whole last year and a half has been traumatic, I think for all of us,” said Dr. Lew Zeidner, M Health Fairview’s systems director for clinical triage and transition services. “We have seen a 17% increase in the number of [emergency department] visits for mental health crises across our system.”

M Health Fairview opened a new outpatient healthcare model at Southdale Hospital to create a calming environment for those in crisis. The Emergency Psychiatric Assessment, Treatment and Healing, or EmPATH, unit opened in March.

In an open-concept room at the hospital, there are recliners, TVs, refreshment stations and tablets with guided mediation and music options. It’s designed to feel like a living room.

“There are some sensory rooms that people can go to for calming sounds and calming lights and to be alone if they wish,” Zeidner explained.

When a patient enters the emergency department at Southdale Hospital with a mental health crisis, they’re assessed and then moved to the outpatient EmPATH unit. A patient typically spends 12 to 48 hours in the space.

“We knew that there was a better way to do this, we knew the emergency department is not a great place to have a mental health crisis,” Zeidner said. “We’ve created an environment that’s much more conducive to supporting someone in a crisis. A traditional emergency department because it treats all kinds of patients — some in trauma, some in cardiac arrest — are fast-paced, they are loud, they have a lot of rules and none of that is very helpful to someone in a crisis.”

The EmPATH unit is also staffed entirely by mental health professionals.

It’s a first-of-its-kind facility in Minnesota. Since the unit opened, M Health Fairview has helped about 1,100 adult patients. According to Zeidner, they see about 42 patients each week.

“We’re able to intervene in their crisis, we’re able to bring family in, we’re able to work with the whole situation, understand the situation and have a different outcome,” he said. “With the benefit of time, with the benefit of a calming atmosphere, we can say, ‘Alright, how can we keep them safe and get them back home and get them back in their job or whatever the next step might be for them.’

"Additionally, it gives us time to set up their next level of care so that we’re not just giving them a referral for an outpatient therapist, or an outpatient psychiatrist, we’re actually making them an appointment, sometimes having an interview with that person before they leave.”

It’s already reducing inpatient hospital admissions. Before EmPATH, about 40% of patients entering the hospital with a mental health crisis were admitted at Southdale. According to Zeidner, that’s now dropped to 17%.

He told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS there are other EmPATH units across the country; however, those facilities have about 25% admission rates.

“It’s very exciting,” he said of their progress. “It also allows more people to understand that we all have crises. This is not something that’s unique to a small set of people and in those crises, we can get better, we can get the help we need and we can do better after that.”

The health care system plans to open a second, larger adult unit at the University of Minnesota’s Riverside campus. A unit for children is also being designed for that campus.

“Kids are not small adults. They have different needs,” Zeidner said. “For the kids unit, we’ve kind of reversed it so the kids will be in the sensory rooms and they will also have a living room space they can move into. It allows parents to stay with them without being in the living room space and sometimes children need a little bit more seclusion time.”

M Health Fairview hopes to open those units in late 2022 or early 2023.