Transforming Mental Health and Substance Abuse Data Systems in the United States

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State efforts to improve mental health and substance abuse service systems cannot overlook the fragmented data systems that reinforce the historical separateness of systems of care. These separate systems have discrete approaches to treatment, and there are distinct funding streams for state mental health, substance abuse, and Medicaid agencies. Transforming mental health and substance abuse services in the United States depends on resolving issues that underlie separate treatment systems—access barriers, uneven quality, disjointed coordination, and information silos across agencies and providers. This article discusses one aspect of transformation—the need for interoperable information systems. It describes current federal and state initiatives for improving data interoperability and the special issue of confidentiality associated with mental health and substance abuse treatment data. Some achievable steps for states to consider in reforming their behavioral health data systems are outlined. The steps include collecting encounter-level data; using coding that is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, including national provider identifiers; forging linkages with other state data systems and developing unique client identifiers among systems; investing in flexible and adaptable data systems and business processes; and finding innovative solutions to the difficult confidentiality restrictions on use of behavioral health data. Changing data systems will not in itself transform the delivery of care; however, it will enable agencies to exchange information about shared clients, to understand coordination problems better, and to track successes and failures of policy decisions. (Psychiatric Services 59:1257–1263, 2008)

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