Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Minnesota State Hospitals Need To Be Managed To Minimize Aggression

When is that going to happen?  How much time will it take?

According to new Minneapolis StarTribune article by Chris Serres the situation at the state's second largest state mental hospital has worsened to the point that it has caught the attention of regulators from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).  CMS put the state on notice that it at risk for losing $3.5 million in federal funding if they don't correct patient safety issues at the hospital by March 5.  The hospital is described as having experienced a "surge" in violence and aggression with associated injuries since the state Legislature passed a 48 hour rule mandating that jail inmates identified in as having mental health problems be directly admitted to Anoka Regional Metro Regional Treatment Center.  The jail inmates were given priority status over any civilly committed persons in community hospitals.  The article points out that there have been 38 aggression-related injuries involving 24 patients in 2013 and 48 aggression-related injuries involving 28 patients in 2014.  A direct assault on a staff person is described in the article.

I have a few suggestions for legislators, bureaucrats, and citizens of the State of Minnesota on how this can be resolved as soon as possible.  Let me preface this by saying that I have no special knowledge about what is happening at AMRTC apart from what is in the Seres article.  I am one of a handful of psychiatrists in the state who have worked in these settings and am qualified to comment on these issues.  I have a formal request in to the Department of Human Services to review a copy of the CMS report because I cannot find it on the Internet, the DHS web site, the CMS web site, or the office of the Inspector General.  My suggestions follow:

1.  Rescind the 48 hour rule to send unscreened jail inmates to AMRTC immediately:

Any psychiatrist could have provided consultation at the time on the reasons why this will not work, but the biggest reason is that psychiatric symptoms or even a psychiatric diagnosis does not necessarily mean that a psychiatric hospital is the best place for the patient.  Patients admitted to inpatient units are screened for psychiatric disorders and not on the basis of alleged criminal behavior.  In terms of logistics within the state hospital system patients who are dangerously aggressive have generally been committed as mentally ill and dangerous and generally sent to the Security Hospital at St. Peter. It is fairly common to encounter sociopathic and psychopathic patients in community psychiatric hospital.  It soon becomes obvious that apart from the personality disorder and the associated aggressive and inappropriate behaviors that there are no treatable problems.  This patients often become aggressive toward staff or exploit other patients and are immediately discharged from inpatient settings.  Inpatient psychiatric settings are not the correct place to address antisocial persons or in many cases antisocial persons even with a psychiatric diagnosis because of their danger to staff and other patients.

There is the associated issue of there being a strong incentive to send patients who may be difficult to work with but who are not psychiatrically ill to the hospital just because the rule exists.  Transfers like that always occur to psychiatric units if someone has carte blanche for admitting people and psychiatrists don't screen them.  Aggression can be minimized only when the entire unit is managed with a safety focus and that includes screening anyone with aggression who is admitted.

2.  Reanalyze the culture at AMRTC with an emphasis on staff safety:

It is really impossible to run a psychiatric hospital if the staff responsible for the care of the patients are threatened and/or burned out.  The article lead me to believe that both things are happening and compounded by the fact that hospital staff is being mandated to work extra hours.  In the initial stages that may require the presence of additional security staff.  I have seen similar situations where the level of antisocial and aggressive behavior on an inpatient unit became overwhelming resulting in a riot situation that required police intervention.  Some attempts at splitting up large state hospitals to smaller local facilities in the state have resulted in similar incidents.

A critical element of the culture that has come to light in recent years is the fact that there appears  to be a top down initiative in the management of state facilities.  Aggressive behavior has been an ongoing problem at state facilities.  Psychiatric input into that problem is not clear.  It is clear that in at least some cases, programs were implemented by management staff who have no expertise in managing aggression and violence in inpatient settings.

Like most psychiatric problems aggression is a treatable problem, but it has to be addressed directly.  It is best address in an environment that identifies it as a treatable problem immediately rather than an untreatable characteristic or one that has a root cause that must be addressed first.  There is not better way to treat aggression than identifying it as a primary problem that is incompatible with a therapeutic environment.

3.  Take a serious look at how inpatient psychiatric facilities are supposed to run:

State governments and managed care systems have both had deleterious effects on psychiatric care on inpatient units.  These management systems have a lot in common in determining what happens on the inpatient side.  The absolute worst case scenario is containment only.  People are basically held usually based on the premise that they are dangerous in some way.  Dangerous in this context generally means at risk for aggressive or suicidal behavior.  They are discharged when that dangerousness passes either by the administration of medication, the person resolving a crisis in their life, or until they convince staff that they are no longer dangerous.  This approach to inpatient care seriously dumbs down psychiatry, treats patients like widgets on an assembly line rather than individuals, and creates the illusion that anyone can do inpatient psychiatry.  Dangerousness after all is not a psychiatric diagnosis.  It also creates the illusion that an inpatient psychiatric unit is tantamount to incarceration or jail.  It leads to a correctional atmosphere in what should be a therapeutic hospital environment.  In a correctional atmosphere, the staff seem to be policing the patients rather than working with them on common goals.  This attitude has also led at least one state official to suggest that psychiatrists in this environment are optional.  A local mental health advocate has said the same thing.  If that is true - why is it that the state of aggression in this hospital has gotten to the point that the union representative in the article is suggesting that the institution is being run by the patients?

4.  Rexamine the funding and rationing of psychiatric care in Minnesota:

The article mentions a backlog of patients at AMRTC due to the fact that many of them cannot be discharged.  This has been a problem in Minnesota for as long as I can remember.  Patients are committed in acute care hospitals and end up waiting there too long for transfer to AMRTC.  Once they get to AMRTC they meet criteria for discharge and there is nowhere for them to go, largely because they still have chronic psychiatric symptoms that are socially unacceptable or that preclude their safety in the community.  Anyone who is covered by standard health insurance is no longer covered if they are committed to a state hospital.  People can end up undergoing civil commitment because their insurance companies do not provide the level of care that they require in the community.  The entire system of fragmented and rationed care can be viewed as a way for the government and managed care companies to minimize their funding of necessary care, especially in patients with complex problems.  A basic option here is to expand care based on treatment parameters rather than rationing criteria.  Develop treatment based and quality goals rather than rationing goals that provide minimal and frequently inadequate care.  One of the basic principles of community psychiatry is that the funding needs to follow the patient.  If patients are committed and transferred to state hospitals and they are on private insurance plans - those plans need to have continued financial responsibility for those patients.  If a patient with private insurance needs treatment in jail, those services need to be covered by private insurance rather than being shifted to law enforcement.  The entire system of rationing and cost shifting is also a strong incentive to transfer any mentally ill inmate to AMRTC because law enforcement is covering the cost of medical and psychiatric care.  

5.  Facilities for mentally ill inmates that recognizes their vulnerability:

One of the concerns that I have always had for any inmate with a mental illness, is that they are generally much more vulnerable to any form of manipulation or intimidation by career criminals and sociopaths.  The second concern is that many patients with mental illnesses end up in jail because they are symptomatic and/or confused and end up trespassing or in dangerous situations.  They are often not able to follow instructions by the police.  Some Minnesota counties have mechanisms to safeguard this population.  One of them is having them screened in jail for competency to proceed to trial by qualified psychiatrists and psychologists.  The resolution in those cases is that the patient is transferred to an inpatient psychiatric unit for stabilization and the pending legal charges are usually dropped.  They can frequently be discharged from the acute care hospital without transfer to a state hospital.  In cases where this does not occur, every effort should be made to segregate the vulnerable inmates who are mentally ill from the general jail or prison population.  The ideal situation would allow for more programming to prevent some of the common correctional problems like isolation that lead to increasing symptoms.    

These are a few suggestions to resolve the current problems with aggression noted to exist at at AMRTC.  Over the years that I have been following this story, there is also the question of what is really going on in these facilities?  Why are these problems so difficult to resolve when acute care hospitals have fewer problems and are dealing with more acutely agitated and frequently intoxicated individuals.  Why does the bureaucracy think they can resolve these problems without using psychiatric expertise or at least methods that have been proven to work in psychiatric institutions?  And what about the alternate and seemingly more permissive methods of dealing with aggression?  Can anyone come out with a comment on whether or not they have succeeded or failed?  There is a lack of transparency when it comes to seeking the answers to these questions.

These are all important questions that need to be answered.  I hope to receive the CMS report and make further comments on this situation.  There is a lack of transparency about what the state is doing to resolve this situation.  When the state assumes the care of mentally ill individuals - people who by definition are vulnerable adults, transparency is important to assure their adequate care and reassure the families of all of the patients admitted to this hospital.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Chris Serres.  State psychiatric hospital in Anoka threatened with loss of federal funding.  Minneapolis StarTribune January 4, 2016.


The jail photograph at the top of this blog is by Andrew Bardwell from Cleveland, Ohio, USA (Jail Cell) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.  The URL is:


  1. I was wondering if you can comment about the St. Cloud MN hospital shooting where a psychiatric patient was not evaluated by a psychiatrist and was released with the general patient population who in turn overpowered and shot the deputy guarding him with his own gun. He could have shot other patients and staff but luckily, he was subdued in time to cause more damage. The hospital erred by not having a proper evaluation of the patient but I believe he was evaluated by a PA instead. What do you think of this common practice to save money and also the use of tele-health psychiatrists to provide consultations in the ER or other setting.
    Thank you in advance. I enjoy reading your blog.

    1. Thanks for your question. I have a previous post on another incident in a Minnesota hospital:

      I can't speak to this case in particular but I can add a few general concepts based on my experience working a county hospitals around a lot of aggressive individuals. Firearms in hospitals are generally not a good idea. They are not a deterrent to people who are aggressive and have severe impairments in judgment or see them as a means to escape or perpetrate violence. The law enforcement officers involved are also not able to maintain a high enough level of vigilance to prevent an unexpected attack. A hospital environment is not generally a very stimulating environment. There may be a significant amount of background noise, but there are not a lot of events that require focused attention - like very low frequency aggressive events.

      That means that the best protection against these events are physical barriers to protect people from the aggressive person. In the hospitals where I have worked those barriers include jail cell units where incarcerated patients who need acute medical treatment can be transferred to and entire 18-20 bed units that specialize in treating aggressive men. There is a need for similar spaces for aggressive women but that tends to be a rarer problem. The units themselves have to be staffed with people who are comfortable dealing with aggression and who know how to address it. The environment has to be secured against contraband weapons and drugs and all material coming into the unit needs to be searched. Metal detectors are also employed to detect any weapons coming into the unit.

      The person making the assessment of the potentially violent or aggressive person needs to have experience making these determinations and have a level of comfort with the dispositions - specifically where the person could be safely treated. They also have to be very aware of any threats to their safety along the way. One of my themes on this blog is that there are not many places where this can happen. In the state of Minnesota for example, although there are many community hospitals - only a few have psychiatric units. Of those 20 or so psychiatric units - there are less than a handful that have the capacity to treat highly aggressive patients. These resources need to be better developed and the psychiatrists who specialize in this area need to be given more resources and freedom to address this need. There are too many unnecessary injuries and deaths and too many lives wasted because at the root of the aggression - there was a treatable problem.

      On the issue of telepsychiatry, it has been around for a long time. As early as 1988, I was approached by a satellite TV company who was interested in developing this service for Northern Minnesota. One of my colleagues did it for a number of years for an outpatient clinic in a remote area, but they had a rule that she had to see the patient in person every 4 visits. I think a lot of it has to do with the quality of the assessment and I am certain that there will be some video assessments that are superior to some face-to-face evaluations. Lately I think that there is a cultural component that has been missed and that is patient acceptability. It is one thing to have a study, that asks that question in a sample of people who may be interested in the technology. I have found that in clinical practice there are significant numbers of patients who do not consider it to be acceptable at all and consider it to be the equivalent of no evaluation. That might be an issue that can be determined in advance but it needs further study.

    2. Thank you so much for the reply. Looking forward to reading more about your take on AMRTC.