Both inpatient and outpatient care are critical to a patient’s recovery and wellbeing. Inpatient care services, which are meant to provide 24/7 supervision and monitoring, address concerns that pose an immediate risk to the patient. Outpatient care, on the other hand, includes a wide range of ongoing services that help improve a patient’s health over time.
What often goes unacknowledged, however, is the period of time from when an individual leaves an inpatient facility to when they begin outpatient services. Still in a highly vulnerable state, patients can easily fall victim to gaps in care. In the case of behavioral health, we can see this vulnerability in patient suicide death rates, which are over 300 times higher than the general population’s in the first week after leaving inpatient facilities.
To close these potentially dangerous gaps and improve health outcomes and patient experiences, healthcare organizations need to take a more collaborative and connected approach to care.
Common Issues During Inpatient-Outpatient Transition
With no clear bridge between inpatient and outpatient care, patients often run into different obstacles that can worsen their experience as a patient and potentially stop them from continuing to seek out care.
No longer under regular observation, recently discharged patients may struggle with taking prescribed medication or following through with appointments.
New health plans
Without the proper support, patients may have trouble understanding and following an entirely new health plan.
Families and other support systems often want to help but are unsure how. This may mean patients transitioning to outpatient care are not receiving any support at all—clinical or non-clinical.
How to Start Bridging the Gap
For inpatient service providers:
Connect patient and outpatient service providers. Patients are highly vulnerable between inpatient and outpatient services. Because of this, inpatient providers should connect the patient with any outpatient providers before discharge to establish a rapport and increase the likelihood that the patient will continue with their outpatient care.
Partner with outpatient service providers. To begin closing gaps before a patient even begins the transition period, inpatient behavioral health service providers themselves should connect directly with outpatient providers to discuss and clarify the details of the patient’s health plan to improve the quality of care.
Provide more education on the benefits and importance of outpatient care. It’s common for patients to feel they do not need outpatient services, which naturally leads to higher no-show rates and to poorer health outcomes. Clearly informing patients or providing educational resources on the importance of outpatient services can boost patient engagement.
Involve and educate the patient’s support network. Involving friends, family members, and other support systems is one key strategy for closing gaps in care and encouraging patients to follow through and engage with their outpatient services. Not only can a patient’s support network offer insight into the patient’s condition, but, when properly educated on the topic, they are also equipped with the tools to provide better support.
For Outpatient Providers:
Rethink appointment scheduling. Patients are most vulnerable in the week following discharge from an inpatient facility, so it’s necessary to fill appointment slots giving priority to those most at risk. By looking at referral patterns, outpatient providers can begin to develop scheduling strategies that accommodate those most in need.
Stay connected with inpatient providers. For a more collaborative, patient-centered approach to care, outpatient and inpatient providers should create a clear line of communication. When providers on both sides work together to define roles, limitations, and solutions, patients are less likely to fall through the gaps in the transition period.
Engage support systems. Just as family, friends, or partners should be involved in inpatient care, support systems should be encouraged to participate in outpatient services to ensure individuals have a strong network that is capable of supporting them throughout all stages of their care plan.
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