Randomized Trial of General Hospital and Residential Alternative Care for Patients With Severe and Persistent Mental Illness

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Severe and persistent mental illnesses are often lifelong and characterized by intermittent exacerbations requiring hospitalization. Providing needed care within budgetary constraints to this largely publicly subsidized population requires technologies that reduce costly inpatient episodes. The authors report a prospective randomized trial to test the clinical effectiveness of a model of acute residential alternative treatment for patients with persistent mental illness requiring hospital-level care.


Patients enrolled in the Montgomery County, Md., public mental health system who experienced an illness exacerbation and were willing to accept voluntary treatment were randomly assigned to the acute psychiatric ward of a general hospital or a community residential alternative. There were no psychopathology-based exclusion criteria. Treatment episode symptom improvement, satisfaction, discharge status, and 6-month pre- and postepisode acute care utilization, psychosocial functioning, and patient satisfaction were assessed.


Of 185 patients, 119 (64%) were successfully placed at their assigned treatment site. Case mix data indicated that patients treated in the hospital (N=50) and the alternative (N=69) were comparably ill. Treatment episode symptom reduction and patient satisfaction were comparable for the two settings. Nine (13%) of 69 patients randomly assigned to the alternative required transfer to a hospital unit; two (4%) of 50 patients randomly assigned to the hospital could not be stabilized and required transfer to another facility. Psychosocial functioning, satisfaction, and acute care use in the 6 months following admission were comparable for patients treated in the two settings and did not differ significantly from functioning before the acute episode.


Hospitalization is a frequent and high-cost consequence of severe mental illness. For patients who do not require intensive general medical intervention and are willing to accept voluntary treatment, the alternative program model studied provides outcomes comparable to those of hospital care.

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