Otsuka-IBM project aims to connect care for mental health patients

While healthcare policymakers and other stakeholders are looking to new information technology to help solve an array of problems across the healthcare sector, few issues are getting more attention than the lack of care coordination that has long plagued many providers and patients.

And when it comes to poor coordination interfering with patient outcomes, few specialties have more experience than mental health.

According to Richard Surles, PhD, senior director for the U.S. digital solutions project at Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. ("Otsuka"), mental health issues have long been kept in the shadows of medicine, and that hasn't changed even as technology has advanced.

"When you look at the issue of the use of health information and health IT," he said recently, "mental health has a history of being excluded from the mainstream of health systems."

Irony abounds in that regard, as mental health patients tend to struggle with many of the issues health IT advocates say new IT can help address.  For example, Surles pointed out, as they age, a majority of mental health patients develop many of the same chronic conditions as the rest of the population, but those conditions often go unaddressed.

Since 2012, Otsuka has been collaborating with IBM and South Florida Behavioral Health Network, Inc. in Florida's Miami-Dade County to develop and pilot a comprehensive solution aimed at improving the coordination of care for mental health patients.

In many ways, Miami-Dade is the ideal location for a development project, as it thoroughly typifies the situation found in many places across the country.  

For example, according to Surles, there are 57 entities throughout the county involved in providing some form of service to mental health patients.  That might seem excessive until one considers the range of issues – including substance abuse, housing and transportation, to name just a few – that many mental health patients may be struggling with at any given time.

The question facing mental health stakeholders, Surles said, is "How do we make a real, radical change in the way mental healthcare is being delivered?" In short, how do you connect 57 providers across Miami-Dade County?

There is, of course, more involved in solving the problem than simply linking up the various stakeholders. But it is expected that better coordination will, in turn, facilitate better utilization of resources and increased care coordination across both clinical and social programs settings, while also enhancing opportunities for more patient engagement in the development and implementation of care management plans.

If all that sounds familiar, it's because those are the goals shared by stakeholders across the healthcare system, whether they're focused on mental health issues or on the many other issues in which enhanced collaboration and better coordination are considered key to moving the system forward.

As Surles sees it, beyond connecting the various stakeholders the main challenges ahead "include the need to improve the consistency of our data, to integrate medical and non-medical data, and to continually update information" from the array of providers involved in any patient's case.

He added that Otsuka has already started discussing the possibility of launching similar projects with mental health stakeholders across the country.  And not surprisingly, the idea has generated significant interest.

This article orginally appeared on HIMSS Future Care.