Empty Hospital Halls

Two employees at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital speak with each other at the end of an empty hallway connection the hospital to nearby clinics Thursday, April 16, 2020, in Bozeman.

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As the number of patients with mental health needs steadily increases, Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital is adding two rooms dedicated to emergency behavioral health patients.

A lack of mental health and substance abuse services were flagged in two recent community health needs assessments, which Bozeman Health does every three years to ascertain where their services could improve. But the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened an already urgent problem, said Maureen Womack, system director of behavioral health at Bozeman Health.

With a surge of mental health needs expected even after the pandemic subsides, Womack said they need to prepare.

“We need to plan for what’s happening right now, but then we also know that the greatest surge and behavioral health emergencies will be about nine months after the pandemic,” Womack said. “So we wanted to make sure we have the infrastructure to really deal with what the impact of this pandemic is going to be in one to two years from now.”

The city of Bozeman allocated over $300,000 as part of its CARES Act pandemic relief funds to Bozeman Health Foundation for the rooms, which chief advancement officer Jason Smith said are budgeted to cost $650,000 over two years.

The new area will include an evaluation room and two observation rooms.

After staff rule out any medical issues that may be at play, patients will be stabilized in the behavioral health rooms. Doing so by “partnering with the patient” and empowering them is key, Womack said.

Patients will also be able to talk to a “peer specialist” who has been through similar situations to help.

Bozeman Health is adding an advanced practice registered nurse and a licensed mental health professional positions to their staff to assist with the patients. Staff will then work on a treatment plan that might include medications to hold them over until their next appointment or keeping them for treatment.

“Our goal is to really stabilize the crisis and get them to that next level of care,” Womack said. “There’s really, to me, significant outcomes that are truly important particularly if you’re a family member or that patient in terms of better care, being able to stay in your community. It’s less coercive; it’s not as frightening as going to an inpatient hospital.”

The rooms and additional staff will create a “mini fast-track for psychiatric patients” within the hospital, Womack said.

The two rooms need to be completely renovated, Womack said, to remove any risks associated with mental health patients. Instead of the traditional gurneys seen in most emergency departments, the behavioral health rooms will have recliners, Womack said.

Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital Emergency Department nurse manager Paige Bichler said having a dedicated area for behavioral health patients away from the typical hustle of the emergency department will help create a more therapeutic environment, something Bichler said has been increasingly clear is needed as the pandemic worsens mental health issues.

“If you spend time in the emergency department, and you’ve done so as a traditional emergency department patient, you learn that it’s really about speed and urgency and there’s a level of energy and activity that is oftentimes exactly the opposite of what you want or need for someone who’s experiencing behavioral health crisis,” Smith said. “And so, treating these patients with that same sense of urgency in a space that offers an opportunity to experience calm, is a really important game changing way to meet their needs.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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