UPMC Opens Behavioral Unit in ER | News, sports, jobs


UPMC Altoona plans to create a separate behavioral health space within the emergency department.

The change will allow for better, more efficient and friendlier care when patients arrive in mental distress or a substance use crisis, according to a pair of hospital officials who gave a presentation to the city council on Monday.

The proposed Emergency Psychiatric Assessment Treatment and Healing unit would allow the hospital to move behavioral health patients who come to the emergency department to a calmer environment where they could receive care quickly, isolated from crowds, noise and agitation of the mainstream emergency room, according to information from Director of Nursing Kim Corle and Tim Balconi, president of the UPMC Altoona Foundation.

The number of behavioral health patients in the area has increased dramatically in recent years – up to “stunning levels” — and the hospital now admits more than 1,000 a year, according to Corle and a written proposal submitted by the hospital.

The project would cost about $1.3 million, according to the hospital.

The city council reached a consensus on Monday to allocate $100,000 in American Rescue Plan Act money for the project, as requested by the hospital — which already has a $250,000 pledge from the U.S. Department of Health Resources and Services Administration, and that has applied for $773,000 in a Substance Abuse Disorder and Crisis Stabilization grant from the state and $200,000 in ARPA money from Blair County, according to the proposal.

UPMC Altoona would pay all other costs under the proposal.

The unit would be staffed with psychiatrically trained nurses, mental health workers and assessors, and a psychiatrist would be available 24/7, according to the proposal and Corle.

In addition to “speed up” care for behavioral health patients, the “living room”-like unit would reduce patient inclination “escalate” in response to the clamor of the regular Emergency Department, the representatives said.

Keeping such patients out of the regular emergency room makes it safer for the behavioral health patients themselves and the regular patients, according to the representatives.

EMPATH patients require coercive or involuntary medication only 1% of the time, compared to 14% for the “traditional model”, according to the proposal.

EMPATH will eliminate the need for many behavioral health patients to be hospitalized, Corle said.

Such patients may instead be discharged for outpatient care, she said.

The quieter, less illuminated setting in particular helps autistic patients, according to the representatives.

EMPATH will provide assistance to patients as young as 14 – possibly younger, according to the proposal.

According to Corle, EMPATH units have proven successful elsewhere.

There are currently none in this area, she said.

There’s one at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital whose patterns and processes the unit at UPMC Altoona will mimic, according to Corle.

The new unit will be built in what was the “accelerated” area of ​​the emergency department, according to Corle.

Construction will be difficult and expensive because of the need to seal off the space while work is in progress, Balconi said.

Shrinking the regular emergency room should not be a problem because the presence of EMPATH will absorb a proportionate number of patients coming to the hospital for emergency care, Corle predicted.

“It should be a wash,” she said.

Behavioral health isolation rooms installed several years ago were “a step in the right direction” Corle said.

The new project will continue in the same direction, she said.

Initially, hospital staff should be able to handle EMPATH’s responsibilities, though staff may need to grow over time, Corle said.

The unit should assist the Altoona Police Department in its work, Police Chief Joe Merrill said.

Mental health problems are “a huge part” of the department’s call volume, Merrill said.

“Anything that gets (patients with mental health problems) faster past the waiting room and into this (more calm) environment is definitely something useful,” Merrill said.

Councilors praised the hospital plan.

“Mental health resources across the country and especially in this area are drastically limited and underfunded,” so the proposed investment is welcome, said Councilman Joe Carper. “It’s amazing how much community buy-in” there has already been, he added, citing the grant commitments.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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UPMC Opens Behavioral Unit in ER | News, sports, jobs

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