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First-of-its-kind mental health treatment works to keep patients out of the ER

M Health Fairview's EmPATH model is designed like a living room and includes recliners, sensory rooms and natural lighting.

For a lot of people, the last couple years were especially challenging, marked by loss and the confusion of COVID-19.

Experts say it's more important than ever to recognize that impact on our mental health, and to increase access to care. 

M Health Fairview's new approach, called the Emergency Psychiatric Assessment, Treatment, and Healing (EmPATH) model, treats patients in a calming, living room setting, rather than the bustling emergency room.

A year after it debuted, doctors say it's working — already dropping emergency room admissions in its first year by more than half.

"What we’re doing is working, and I think it’s working in two contexts," said Dr. Lewis Zeidner. "One, is we de-escalate the crisis, and two, is we put people on a path to get the care they need so the emergency department doesn’t become their primary caregiving."

Across M Health Fairview care providers, 17,000 patients a year are admitted for a mental health crisis. It's a number Dr. Zeidner says increases every year.

"Often times, by the time someone comes to an emergency department, they're really in crisis," said Dr. Zeidner. 

The chaotic environment isn't ideal for someone in crisis, so it was clear that a new approach to care was necessary — one that some University of Minnesota students, in part, engineered. 

"A lot of the artwork is natural scenes, there's natural light, unlike a traditional emergency department, and then there are sensory rooms," said Dr. Zeidner. 

It's a first-of-its-kind space in Minnesota that allows patients the time they need to be treated entirely by mental health clinicians in a less restrictive space.

Data from the first year shows it has reduced inpatient admission for people with mental health symptoms by 60%. Before EmPATH opened, Southdale Hospital admitted about 40% of people who came to the emergency department with a mental health crisis. Now, with the specialized care that EmPATH offers, that number has dropped to 16%.

It's helped some 2,200 people so far, and what's more, Dr. Zeidner says, rarely do they treat the same patient twice.

"We're able to resolve the crisis, help them resolve their crisis, and they can go back to their normal lives," said Dr. Zeidner.

And when a patient is released from care, the experts have already set up an appointment with an appropriate clinician, who then follows up with a phone call.

Fairview now plans to expand EmPATH services at its largest hospital, M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center, which will serve adult and pediatric patients.

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