Practice Economics

Simple Strategy for Addressing Problematic Patient Behavior


Linden Spital, NP, a psychiatric mental-health nurse practitioner, staffs the Psychiatric Consultation Liaison Service at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Nearly every hospital larger than about 200 beds, she says, could benefit from a similar service, and hospitalists could play an important role in creating it.

I wrote about the idea for a generally similar service in my April 2015 column, but at the time, I didn’t know of an institution that had something like this in place.

Along with her hospitalist colleagues, Anupama (Anu) Goyal, MBChB, and Rob Chang, MD, Linden has launched a service to provide assistance to bedside caregivers dealing with very difficult patients (eg, those who are verbally or physically threatening to staff, unreasonably demanding and angry, have bizarre behavior, etc.).

Sample Cases

Linden Spital

Linden Spital

Two recent cases illustrate the role of the service. A female patient in her 60s had several admissions characterized by what many caregivers agreed were unreasonably precise demands regarding how her care should be delivered. She was verbally abusive of caregivers, especially those who were young or of a different race, and her family member tended to reinforce these maladaptive behaviors. Staff found it very stressful to care for her and had concerns that her care suffered as a result.

Linden served as a resource and support for staff, plus worked with providers to set limits on the patient and family behavior and to separate patient behaviors that were and weren’t modifiable. Linden’s efforts helped clarify the goals for the patient’s care and reduced staff distress. Even though the patient’s behavior didn’t change significantly, staff anecdotally reported less distress and concern that the patient’s care suffered as a result.

Dr. Anupama (Anu) Goyal

Dr. Anupama (Anu) Goyal

Another case involved a man in his 50s who had a progressive neurodegenerative disease and was admitted because of increasingly aggressive behavior in his skilled-nursing facility (SNF). Providers at the SNF attributed the poor behavior to changes in medications. His behavior was very difficult to manage, and staff asked for Linden’s help. She worked with the patient and realized much of his difficult behavior stemmed from his frustration with communicating verbally because of his neurologic disease. Rather than pursue increasing psychotropics, Linden promoted efforts to develop a system of hand signals the patient could use to communicate needs. His behavior improved, presumably by reducing his own frustration and improving his autonomy.

Dr. Rob Chang

Dr. Rob Chang

Atypical Consults

This psychiatric consultation liaison service has some overlap with traditional inpatient psychiatry services, but it is configured so that the caregiver is essentially embedded on the medical units of the hospital and assists in the care of patients who wouldn’t typically be appropriate for a psychiatry consult. For example, patients and/or families who act out because of anger over being on observation status are appropriate for this service but would usually not be appropriate for a psychiatry consult. The two examples above aren’t ideal cases for a standard psychiatry consult; however, the attending hospitalist needed help nonetheless.

Operational Details

The liaison service started with a successful trial on two hospital units in 2013. Linden began serving as the sole clinician on the service in January 2015. She is available during the daytime on weekdays, and any staff can request her participation in the care of a patient. Her visits are billed when appropriate, but many aren’t billed (for example, if her primary work was to conference with staff regarding management of a patient).

Consults can be requested by anyone (nurses, etc., as well as physicians, though only the latter would be billable) via an electronic health record entry that helps ensure whether the request is for this service versus the inpatient psychiatry service. The order includes a standard list of potential reasons for consult that can be selected and amplified with free text comments. She also receives verbal consult requests as she moves through the hospital.

Linden’s position is budgeted through the psychiatry department and funded by the hospital with only modest professional fee collections.

An Idea That Is Catching On?

Anu Goyal made me aware of a study from 2004 that summarized findings from experience with a similar service at Washington University in St. Louis, but the service was cancelled after a short time due to its cost.1 She also found a few studies from the 1990s and a 2001 study from Australia that report on a similar service.

But maybe the idea is catching on again, at least a little.

On April 25, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled “Hospitals Test Putting Psychiatrists on Medical Wards.”2 It described programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, and NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. They share some similarities with the service at the University of Michigan. However, according to the article, the three big-city programs tilt more toward a traditional consultation model than what Linden does.

I think every hospital should be thinking about a service other than traditional consult psychiatry that could help with challenging patient behavior. The University of Michigan model or similar ones seem like a good place to start. TH


  1. Yakimo R, Kurlowicz L, Murray R. Evaluation of outcomes in psychiatric consultation-liaison nursing practice. Arch Psychiatr Nurs. 2004;18(6):215-227.

    2. Ladnado L. Hospitals test putting psychiatrists on medical wards. The Wall Street Journal website. Accessed July 3, 2016.

Dr. Nelson has been a practicing hospitalist since 1988. He is co-founder and past president of SHM, and principal in Nelson Flores Hospital Medicine Consultants. He is co-director for SHM’s “Best Practices in Managing a Hospital Medicine Program” course. Write to him at [email protected].

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