Mental Health Worker Shortage Redefines The Patient Experience: How to Reduce Your Staff Turnover and Protect Care Standards

Oct 17, 2023 | eGuide

Mental health worker providing a positive patient experience

Managing mental health centers can be challenging at the best of times, and with mental health workers in short supply, your practice infrastructure might be feeling the pinch.

The shortage of mental health workers is reaching crisis levels, with the US Department of Health and Human Services confirming that by 2025, there will be 10,000 fewer workers in the mental health profession than needed. Balancing your patients’ standard of care with protecting your staff against burnout can be a constant uphill battle.

The best way to promote a positive patient experience in mental health centers is to focus on the welfare of your staff. Our guide deep dives into ways to decrease mental health worker turnover while improving the healthcare patient experience of your center.

Delivering a Positive Patient Experience in Your Mental Health Centers

Your patients’ experience is comprised of every aspect of the patient-health worker interaction within a health system, including:

  • Effectiveness of the treatment
  • Selection of treatments
  • Lines of communication
  • Provider-patient relationships
  • Interactions with healthcare staff
  • Patient safety
  • Wait times

In addition, patient experience influences patient engagement, which is defined by how a clinic actively engages with the patient, not only in terms of delivering direct services but also how the patient is being treated throughout their visit.

According to Ronald Andersen’s health services utilization model published by the American Psychological Association, four clusters of factors affect patient engagement. The 4th cluster includes the following elements:

  • Accessibility of care
  • Clinical environment
  • Treatment options

Cumulatively, the patient experience reflects your patients’ perception of your practice. A positive patient experience results in high patient satisfaction and retention, while a negative patient experience can lead to dissatisfaction and potential attrition.

Patients who feel unaccommodated will likely stop pursuing treatment and never return to your clinic. A recent study by the Center for Psychotherapy Research, Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania confirmed that up to 57% of patients drop out after the first session, around 50% stopped going to their clinic by session three, and at least 65% dropped treatment before the tenth session.

In other words, the patient experience significantly impacts patient health outcomes. A negative experience not only discourages patients from visiting your clinic — they will cease treatment altogether.

Hence, maintaining the patient experience is critical to clinical success in mental health practices.

The Challenges of Managing the Patient Experience

Doctor engaging in patient experience encounter

Facilitating a positive patient experience in mental health practices holds many challenges. The challenges are due to a variety of reasons, including:

  • Staffing issues (especially at the front desk)
  • Inefficient workflow protocols
  • Lack of sufficient staff training

In general, there are five challenges that you’ll meet when managing the patient experience in your mental health practice:

  1. Inconsistent patient support – If there are no front desk staff or patient care coordinators present, patients may be unable to get answers to their inquiries and will feel unaccommodated at the reception area.
  2. Distracted therapists – The lack of front office staff may lead to therapists being assigned to perform administrative tasks. This results in a decline in quality care, the frustration of both patient and provider, and even therapist turnover due to burnout.
  3. Lack of patient engagement – Patients constantly decide whether or not they will continue going to your clinic for treatment. Thus, you must actively engage with them to accommodate them even outside of appointments. Otherwise, they may slowly lean towards either going to another clinic or stopping treatment altogether.
  4. Managing patient expectations – Patients enter a clinic expecting how the treatment will play out. Some patients may think the treatment will take too long before having any impact, while others may expect their problems to be resolved within a few appointments. You must be able to manage these expectations to avoid patients getting disappointed.
  5. Long wait times – Every patient wants to undergo treatment from when they check in to the clinic. Unfortunately, this expectation is challenging to meet, as therapists may need to spend more time on prior appointments.

Modern Techniques for Improving the Patient Experience

Therapist facilitating positive patient experience with child and parent

While it is still challenging to maintain the patient experience, there have also been systematic methods that were developed to improve it.

The effectiveness of each technique will vary based on your practice. Ideally, you should implement each technique, observe its impact, and make further improvements throughout your practice.

Here are four modern techniques you should try to improve the patient experience in your mental health practice:

Positive psychiatry

The success rate of treatments is more likely to increase if patients are conducive to the advice of their providers. One of the most effective ways to achieve this is to establish positive relationships between therapists and their patients. This involves an intimate connection where patients feel safe and welcomed when sharing their problems with their providers.

However, due to the other workload that providers have, they tend to go through the motions in every appointment. This leaves patients feeling unaccommodated during their visit.

To solve this, you must train your therapists to practice a “positive psychiatry” approach, wherein providers actively engage with their patients to make them feel heard.

There are three basic ways that therapists can do this:

  • Clarify the goals of their patients’ treatments. This gives their patients a clear perspective of why they’re receiving such treatment
  • Be objective during their appointment. Therapists must always keep in mind that every patient has a unique case and so must approach them without biases or assumptions based on previous experiences
  • Create a welcoming environment. Your therapists must actively make their patients feel like they can be open with their issues and concerns

Maintain patient engagement outside of direct clinical intervention

While patients spend most of their time with your clinic in appointments, another way you can engage with them constantly is to reach out to them outside of clinical hours.

Texting, emailing, and other forms of patient communication are simple yet effective ways for your clinic to engage with your patients. Ideally, your therapists should be the ones to communicate with them. However, if their workload is too heavy to perform consistently, you may delegate this to your front office staff.

Such communication may be about reminders of their upcoming appointments or even simple notes of how they’re doing great with their treatment.

Adopt a patient-centered approach

A patient-centered approach is a technique wherein providers exercise active listening and responses to their patients. Therapists consider their patient’s needs and emotions during their appointments and provide responses that assure or at least acknowledge their distress.

Besides calming down the patient, this allows therapists to have a clear view of their patients’ cases. It also helps them establish informed next steps on how they will help their patients.

Actively address social stigma against mental health

To this day, mental health stigma is one of the top reasons patients do not want to pursue treatment. They fear that they will be criticized by their peers and loved ones if they decide to be open with their illness.

While providers are expected to help patients deal with social stigma, it’s ideal for the entire mental health practice to make the patients feel welcome to share their grievances.

All training staff can achieve this to be positive and happy in every patient interaction. You may also modify your waiting area to be bright and uplifting in appearance.

Best Practices For Training And Preparing Mental Health Staff

Mental healthcare staff team meeting to improve patient experience

Factors such as waiting room amenities and provider selection may help improve the patient care experience. However, to facilitate a positive patient experience in your clinic, you need to leverage all of your staff.

Therapists are not the only ones who engage with patients — front office staff, patient care coordinators, nurses, social workers, and other staff communicate with them. Thus, every staff member can impact the patient experience in healthcare.

This impact, however, can come in one of two ways:

  1. Staff are disengaged with patients, leaving them feeling unwelcome in your clinic and making them unconducive to treatment
  2. Staff are actively engaged with patients, ensuring that they feel safe in voicing their issues and making them more receptive to their treatment plans

With the right strategies, you can prepare your staff to exert a collective effort to create a holistic patient experience.

Here are some examples of effective strategies:

Train all staff on de-escalation techniques

Patients may feel distressed in the clinic at any point during their visit. Typically, knowing and applying de-escalation techniques is expected of therapists during these situations. However, it will be significantly beneficial if every staff member knows how to de-escalate complex patient scenarios so that therapists can focus on their appointments.

Here are a few examples of de-escalation techniques that you should teach to your healthcare staff:

  • Actively empathize and respond to patient concerns. Ensure that every response is targeted at removing the unease in the patient
  • Take the initiative to identify the core problem and find a solution. Listen carefully to the patient’s concerns to determine how they can be resolved
  • Maintain neutral body language and tone. Avoid making sudden actions and gestures that may cause further distress to the patients
  • Facilitate an environment where patients feel safe to voice their grievances. Give them ample space (at least 3 feet away) and time to think and reply to your responses

Provide training on the patient-centered approach

Applying the patient-centered approach may be challenging for all your healthcare staff. Some staff members have grown accustomed to working without empathizing with patients. Others may be so overwhelmed with their work that they neglect empathy’s importance in accomplishing their tasks.

In any case, you must encourage your staff to adopt and implement a patient-centered approach whenever they engage with patients.

Conducting regular activities to train your staff on the patient-centered approach engagingly is highly effective. This lets them appreciate the impact of the approach and encourages them to adopt it in their workflow.

Here are a few examples of activities and protocols:

  • Training sessions – Regular sessions where you refresh staff on what the patient-centered approach is
  • Role-playing – Activities that allow staff to practice the patient-centered approach before applying it to patients
  • Open forums – Allowing staff to share their experiences by using the patient-centered approach for feedback and improvement

Facilitate refreshers on compliance while communicating with patients

Whether it’s a therapist or a receptionist, healthcare regulations like HIPAA must always be followed to protect sensitive patient data.

Having that said, there are two possible scenarios that may happen:

  1. Some staff may refuse to talk to patients for fear of violating regulations
  2. Some staff may become too complacent and forget regulations while speaking with patients

Compound this with regular legal updates, and it can be challenging for staff to consistently comply with healthcare regulations while engaging in friendly conversations with patients.

You must make it easy for your healthcare staff to have to access updates quickly. This allows them to stay updated and comply with regulations while communicating with patients.

Here are some effective strategies to help achieve that:

  • When regulation updates are announced, send organization-wide emails to notify all staff about the changes
  • Hold regular refresher sessions for healthcare staff to stay abreast of healthcare regulations
  • Consider conducting engaging activities where staff can recall compliance regulations while being entertained

Leverage Your Front Office Staff To Manage The Patient Experience

Receptionist facilitating patient experience with happy patient

Your receptionists and other front desk staff are key players in facilitating the patient experience.

This is because of the following reasons:

  • Your patients interact regularly with your front desk staff. Receptionists can consistently create a positive impact on your patients, from their first impressions to their long-term perception of your clinic
  • You can delegate administrative tasks to them. This allows your therapists to focus on providing high-quality services to your patients while reducing their stress
  • Receptionists specialize in performing administrative tasks. They can effectively streamline multiple front desk processes such as check-in, scheduling, and collection
  • They’re capable of accommodating the needs of your patients before their appointments. If patients have questions, grievances, or concerns about their experience at your clinic, receptionists can address them while reassuring your patients that they’re in safe hands

However, simply having receptionists is insufficient — you need to train them properly so that they’re well-equipped to accommodate your patients.

These are the four vital skills that you need to train your receptionists on to enable them to deliver a positive patient experience:

  1. Communicating clearly with the patients – Receptionists should be capable of clear communication with patients for clarity and to avoid confusion
  2. Empathizing with patients – Receptionists must be able to understand the needs of their patients and how they can reassure them
  3. Managing patient expectations – Receptionists need to clarify patient expectations to prevent dissatisfaction
  4. Versatility and flexibility – Being able to identify and execute solutions on the fly is another crucial skill that receptionists must have

Retaining Your Mental Health Staff For A Holistic Patient Experience

Healthcare staff putting hands together to work on improving patient experience

Forming a well-rounded mental health clinic staff team may be a challenge of its own. However, staff retention is another story.

A 2022 study on mental health staff retention conducted in Fort Worth, Texas, uncovered a turnover rate of more than 50% among staff in mental health clinics. Some causes include:

  • Stress in the workplace
  • Lack of career growth
  • Work-life conflict

An inconsistent workforce can significantly impede the patient experience, as you’ll often experience an irregular lack of staff to accommodate patient needs at any given time.

Thus, you must employ sustainable long-term strategies to decrease staff turnover while improving job satisfaction.

Here are five effective strategies:

1. Actively monitor and adjust their workload

There is a tendency for some staff to receive more tasks on their plate than what they’re assigned initially. Over time, this can lead to stress and lower productivity.

Thus, you must ensure that your staff constantly has the proper workload volume.

Here are some guide questions that can help you:

  • What are their primary responsibilities?
  • Does their current workload match their original responsibilities?
  • Can you delegate the administrative work of therapists to other staff?
  • Are they experiencing workflow bottlenecks due to current protocols or other reasons?

2. Create open forums for suggestions and grievances

Mental health stigma continues to be prevalent among mental health professionals. Since they’re expected to maintain professionalism and sound judgment, mental health staff tend to conceal their grievances out of fear of criticism from their peers. However, it is worth noting that mental health professionals are also human beings and can be susceptible to mental health issues.

You must convey this message to your entire staff and encourage them to voice their grievances and feedback. You can do this with the following strategies:

  • Distributing emails or newsletters emphasizing the importance of mental health
  • Providing your staff with the means to voice out their concerns anonymously
  • Orienting management and senior staff to be open to helping their colleagues with issues properly

3. Conduct 1-on-1 meetings with staff

A more personal approach is to assign senior staff members to have 1-on-1 discussions with their associates. This promotes camaraderie, teamwork, and openness among your staff.

Some staff members may initially be uncomfortable with this protocol, so try to integrate this protocol slowly. It may be ideal to enforce confidentiality in the meetings, especially with staff who feel their circumstances are too sensitive to share.

4. Provide clear opportunities for career development

If you have sufficient resources, you may consider opening up opportunities for your staff to grow professionally. This is especially true when your practice grows steadily to require new staff.

There are two types of career development opportunities you may offer:

  1. Vertical growth – Promoting high-performing staff to senior or managerial positions to supervise newer staff
  2. Horizontal growth – Providing staff with new responsibilities that encompass tasks outside of their original work

On the other hand, if your budget is too tight to offer promotions, you may assign additional responsibilities to capable staff with additional compensation.

Be sure to discuss this with your staff, as some of them may have their ideas of career growth.

5. Consider remote options for work arrangements

New, emerging technologies have enabled staff in the healthcare industry to work remotely. For instance, remote reception from platforms such as WelcomeWare allows front desk staff to perform their responsibilities from home.

It may be ideal to consider allowing your staff to work remotely. Not only does this help increase staff retention, but it also makes them more productive and satisfied with their work.

The patient experience is an essential aspect of managing a mental health practice. Thus, every initiative must be taken to facilitate a positive patient experience. You can improve various aspects of your practice to achieve this goal. In the end, however, leveraging your staff is the most effective approach, as how they engage with your patients can spell the difference between them ceasing treatment or pursuing it all the way through.