CEO Robert Garrett: How Hackensack Meridian is modernizing mental health treatment

While the U.S. has the highest suicide rate among global peers despite spending much more on healthcare, it's not alone in its growing need for increased access to behavioral health services. It's a fact Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack (N.J.) Meridian Health, was acutely aware of as a speaker at the 2020 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

It's clear "everybody is recognizing the significance of mental illness, which is inflicting about a billion people around the world now," he said.

To address this trend locally, Hackensack Meridian is working with front-line providers and governments to expand access to mental health services for its patients and team members.

One of the specifics Mr. Garrett shared with global leaders in Davos was the 2019 opening of Hackensack Meridian's behavioral health urgent care center, one of the first of its kind.

The center, staffed by advanced practice nurses and psychologists, is an alternative care setting for New Jersey residents with mental illness who generally access care through the emergency department. More than a million adults in the state have reported mental health issues, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In the past three years, drug deaths in the state have increased 63 percent, with more than 3,100 residents dying from overdoses in 2018.

"The urgent care center is a great alternative providing better access to care, quicker treatment, and even through the use of technology like telepsychiatry, providing easier access to psychiatrists," Mr. Garrett said. "If a patient is seeking care in the urgent care center, it's saving the health system probably between 50 and 75 percent of the cost that would be incurred if that patient went through the emergency department."

Hackensack Meridian also collaborates with the state government on a mental health initiative that takes a more preventive approach to behavioral health. Under the state- and federally funded initiative, 500 New Jersey pediatricians have agreed to screen children for behavioral health issues or early signs of mental illness when they go in for their annual wellness checks. Pediatricians have already screened 165,000 children, and 10,000 have been referred to other providers for additional screening or treatment. 

"We have to turn this upside down and rather than try to treat people that are in significant crisis, identify the issues early on. It will lead to better health for that individual, it will be less traumatic for the families, and certainly will have an impact on our economy if we're able to identify mental illness early on and be able to treat it," Mr. Garrett said.

Hackensack has also addressed behavioral health as a workplace issue. The health system uses a team member recognition system called Wambi that allows team members to give and receive peer-to-peer feedback. Patient and family member feedback also flows through the program.

Outside of feedback, Hackensack has implemented a two-hour "no-meeting zone" after daily safety huddles that allows team members to interact freely with their supervisors. 

Mr. Garrett said the workplace initiatives are "alleviating stress" and "have helped promote a mentally more positive environment for our team members." 

Hackensack is one of several global players prioritizing behavioral health management and prevention. Of Davos, Mr. Garrett said: "There's a realization and a commonality amongst all the nations that it should be treated as a chronic disease like cancer or heart disease or diabetes. That was very refreshing to hear."

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