NewsDiverting behavioral health crisis patients from the ED

Diverting behavioral health crisis patients from the ED


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In response to the prolonged waits faced by patients experiencing behavioral health emergencies in hospitals across the state, Overlook Medical Center in Summit has unveiled a pioneering solution. The recently completed EmPATH unit, a first-of-its-kind facility in New Jersey, is designed to offer immediate care to patients in behavioral health crises, aiming to reduce the need for inpatient hospitalization.

The EmPATH unit, an acronym for Emergency Psychiatric Assessment, Treatment, and Healing, is equipped with recliners, a kitchenette, a bathroom and shower, and a common space for group therapy. Health care professionals at the unit include clinicians, psychiatrists as needed, psychiatric nurses, and peer recovery specialists. The approach is a departure from the traditional emergency department setting, creating a space that promotes healing and reduces the stigma associated with mental health crises.

Stephanie Schwartz, President of Overlook Medical Center and Senior Vice President of Atlantic Health System, emphasized the significance of the new model, stating, “It says, ‘We’re going to bring you to a space that’s safe, that is appropriate for the care that you need.’”

The establishment of the EmPATH unit comes in the wake of a law signed by Governor Phil Murphy in August, extending the involuntary commitment duration from three to six days. This extension aims to provide health care providers with more time to secure proper care for individuals amidst a shortage of psychiatric beds in the state.

Dr. John Sobotka, Director of Psychiatric Emergency and Observation Services at Overlook Medical Center, highlighted the hospital’s efforts to de-escalate patients committed involuntarily, redirecting them to lower levels of care. The EmPATH unit is expected to offer therapeutic touchpoints, facilitating the de-escalation of care and potentially transitioning involuntary patients to voluntary status.

The care model, originally designed by Dr. Scott Zeller in California, anticipates patients spending 24 to 48 hours in the EmPATH unit, receiving therapy, medication, and psychiatric evaluation. The goal is to determine the most suitable ongoing care, whether it be discharge to home with a therapeutic plan, participation in support groups, enrollment in intensive outpatient programs, or placement in psychiatric beds.

Lori Ann Rizzuto, Executive Director for Behavioral Health Services at Atlantic Health System, expressed hope that the introduction of the EmPATH unit would set a trend in psychiatric emergency services. The unit, currently equipped to treat up to six patients with the potential to expand to eight, represents a $2 million investment funded by the hospital.

As the first of its kind in New Jersey, the EmPATH unit at Overlook Medical Center aims to redefine how psychiatric emergency services are delivered, offering a healing environment focused on providing care, medication management, and stabilization for patients in crisis.

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