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January: A Year In Preview
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A Year In Preview

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An Introduction to Care | Part Two

by Dr. Kali Cyrus
February 13, 2020

Dr. Kali Cyrus is our February co-editor. This is part two of our conversation.

Part one can be found here.

There is a lot of off the clock work happening, and out of pocket spending. So much of the care falls on staff after hours.

I would call it the out of pocket / out of office hours commitment. In terms of the costs to me, if I happen to be a doctor who gets bothered, a doctor who works in the public system, what ends up happening is most of my time is not actually spent treating the person's mental and physical health. It's mostly spent trying to figure out case management issues.

If we know this person doesn't have any food at home and they need to be taking their meds with food, or this person doesn't actually have a primary care doctor and they're smoking half as many cigarettes, which is usually the case, or their blood pressure is 200 over 120, or they keep getting hospitalized for medical reasons, if they're in a house dealing with trapping every night, they can't get sleep, it worsens their depression, and they're in a crisis and calling the cops, I can't do my job. 

It isn’t really monetary, but as a team, we spend most of our time trying to figure out how can we get this person food when they may not be eligible to get free food from the state district, how can we actually try to get this drug dealer to forgive a debt – which is like, how can we do that?

What we end up doing instead of focusing on what kind of medications can I give you, or how can I meet with you on a weekly basis and talk through what you need to change, what is a path to recovery, is trying to manage the social stressors. It more so impacts social workers or people who've gone to school who want to be therapists, they end up being case workers. They end up doing these kinds of things, you can talk to them and use your therapeutic knowledge in that way, but it's a very different job that requires a lot more patience because you're dealing with systems that are so non functioning.

It's like going to the post office every day and getting in line for eight hours.

It's essentially what that part of the job has become. I think the other end of it, if you think about teachers who end up spending their money to buy supplies, that type of stuff, I don't necessarily end up in that position because I'm the physician. That's something a lot of us have very strict boundaries about. If I have a patient asking me for food, I'm at a clinic or I'm at their house, I'm not going to. No one would expect me to go run to the grocery store. That's going to fall on my staff. If my staff goes to see them three times a week, they're the ones who are going to get asked for money three times a week.

Think about people who work in group homes, where you have mental health patients with people who have other physical or mental disabilities, staffed by people who are not necessarily nurses. One, you're not making a lot of money and you're supposed to be in house with them all day, those are the clients saying, "I need a cigarette, I need a cigarette" when they've already used up all their cigarette money. But if they're going to flip, they're going to punch you in the face because they have a psychotic illness and they don't have the insight into knowing that you can't just give them cigarettes, cigarettes, cigarettes – they'll go buy them cigarettes if that's the thing that's going to keep calm.

Thinking through the costs in that way, is something I've learned from, and the way I've tried to help my staff out is however I can apply to services for them. I have some people in D.C., once I find out that they're at an age where they could potentially qualify from a home health aid, I apply to everything. I try to get them meals on wheels. I try to get them this thing, that thing. Many of them have been denied in the past, maybe they haven't really tried, or maybe they aren't eligible, but the main way is to try to get them as many services as possible, which then leads to complicating the treatment because you have four or five different agencies involved, and you're trying to figure out who's doing what, which is a different problem, but a better problem to have.

For the most part, the out of the pocket comes from my case workers. You end up spending a lot of money to help the system function to help your patient.

What needs to happen for these systems to work more cohesively?

I think about it as large group solutions and smaller more immediate solutions. In terms of the large overall solutions, I think crisis, I think crisis settings. I really believe in the urgent care system. If you're having a crisis right now people come to the ER and there's no beds to send them to. No long term hospital spaces. Not everybody needs to be in the hospital for seven days a week, 24/7 to be monitored.

We can move them to this middle unit where they can be kept safe for a little while. Some of them just need to get through the weekend. Observation units that aren't hooked up to all the expensive hospital bays are really great places, and then a lot of people can go home after that. They might not need the five days, they just need a couple of days. And I've found that that's a good workaround of not having inpatient beds.

I've also found that outpatient urgent care settings are good. It's a nine to five clinic, with staff, social workers, usually one physician, some peers. You can walk in off the street. It's an outpatient model, imagine how much money you save in that.

You can deal with the multitude of crises by having some place where you know you can go that's not waiting in the ER for eight hours. 

In terms of the large system, it's groups. If you're not going to magically be able to reimburse every psychiatrist or every outpatient, why don't you have more groups of people, who once they leave the hospital just need something from six to nine. Think about AA in terms of mental health treatment, they need other people who are going through the same things they are that are staffed by social workers or staffed by psychiatrists who can provide ongoing care for them, in a model that's in a community center somewhere. That's not expensive and something the state can pay for.

Imagine the quality of what you could have at that time. It's not one reimbursable, so it's not there. Obviously the other individual level solution, you need a meals on wheels program or functioning transportation to help people get to appointments. You could even put a psychiatrist or psychologist in primary care offices.

My simple answer is how do you incorporate mental health players in these spaces? Making sure you at least know there are places that you can go. That takes investing in social services not just mental health centers. It's investing in the community itself.