Competencies for engaging high-needs patients in primary care

Michael Yedidia

Publication Date: 06/01/2018

Background: Patients who heavily utilize hospitals and emergency departments frequently have complex needs requiring services spanning medical, behavioral, and social service sectors. This study identifies essential competencies for caring for high-needs patients and highlights their importance to primary care delivery. Methods: Transcripts of in-depth interviews with 30 clinical and administrative staff at 23 complex care programs across the United States were analyzed using standard qualitative techniques. Selected programs had several years of experience in serving patients with multiple chronic conditions, serious mental illness, substance use disorders, severe poverty, and homelessness. These programs exemplified diverse models (assertive community treatment, housing first, behavioral health, high utilizer), and all of them shared the common element of integrating primary care into their services. Results: Competencies, including those known and taught in other fields, have distinctive application to informing delivery of high quality primary care to populations with complex needs, including: motivational interviewing for establishing patients’ priorities and helping them improve their health on their own terms; trauma-informed care for modifying primary care procedures to mitigate the ill-effects of prior trauma prevalent in this population; and harm reduction for altering medical regimens to accommodate constraints on what patients are able or willing to do. Other capabilities, cultivated by these programs, include empathizing with patients, promoted by exposure to simulations of patient experiences (e.g., hearing voices); as well as withholding judgment and counteracting patient passivity to foster open discussion of treatment plans. Conclusions: Absence of deliberate attention to equipping providers with specific competencies for caring for high-needs patients may contribute to lack of patient engagement and sub-optimal outcomes, ultimately undermining the success of programs serving these populations.