Vivek SrivastavaPatients with a physical illness who also have a mental health condition are receiving poor care in general hospitals because of the failure to integrate physical and mental healthcare services, a report has found.

The report, by the National Confidential Enquiry into Patient Outcome and Death (NCEPOD) found significant numbers of healthcare professionals lacked training in various aspects of mental health care, and that liaison psychiatry input was unsatisfactory in more than 30% of cases.

NCEPOD’s study reviewed 552 cases (all patients had a physical illness and a mental health condition) and looked into the impact a patient’s mental health condition had on the care they received in hospital. Most of the 552 patients had been admitted to hospital through emergency departments. 

It found that inadequate mental health history was taken by non-mental health clinicians in 21.4% patients at initial assessment, and 49.1% during consultant review.

In addition, 45.7% hospitals had mandatory training in the management of patients with mental health conditions, and no hospitals offered training covering all aspects of management of patients with mental health conditions.

Healthcare professionals responding to an online survey stated that 11.4% had no training in basic mental health awareness, 38.9% had no training in management of self-harm and 21.2% had no training in assessing mental health capacity. Meanwhile, 41.4% had no training on risk assessment; 58.9% had no training in psychotropic medications and 19.1% had no training in dealing with violence/aggression.

The NCEPOD report comes at a time when health professionals are expressing concerns that patients with a severe mental illness develop medical conditions a decade earlier in their lives than other people and die 15 to 20 years younger as a consequence. Also, a significant number of patients in general hospitals with physical health conditions often have more common mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. 

Dr Vivek Srivastava (pictured), the report’s co-author and NCEPOD clinical co-ordinator and consultant in acute medicine, said that hospital staff often don’t have the knowledge or confidence to care for people with mental health conditions appropriately. He called on hospitals to integrate physical and mental health care services as a matter of urgency: “Good care was only provided to 46% of patients in this study, showing patients who had a mental health condition suffered the double-whammy of both poor physical and mental healthcare,” he said. 

“The systems don’t exist to train hospital staff appropriately in the care of patients who also happen to have a mental health condition, so immediately there is an issue with having the confidence to care for this group of patients. Once someone is admitted to hospital it is likely to expose any underlying issue such as a mental health problem, and staff need to have the confidence to deal with this, and have access to and know how to refer to mental health services.”

Dr Srivastava added that as a direct result of poor physical healthcare, patients with a mental health condition stay longer in hospital: “They are often discharged into the community inappropriately and then bounce back in and out of hospital if the underlying health condition is not treated properly.”

One example of poor physical care he highlighted was the failure to provide stop smoking services routinely to people with mental health conditions: “We found high levels of smoking among the patients we reviewed - over a third of them (39.7%) were documented as a smoker compared to 19% of adults in the general population,” said Dr Srivastava. “However, only a minority received effective smoking cessation support. Primary and secondary care services must provide stop smoking services.”

Dr Sean Cross, co-author and consultant liaison psychiatrist and NCEPOD clinical co-ordinator in liaison psychiatry, expressed concern that some patients’ health was so adversely affected. “Our report reveals a massive divide between the health and mental healthcare people receive in general hospitals, and 1 in 4 of us will suffer a mental health condition in our lives and we need to take mental health care seriously in hospitals and understand how to provide holistic care for mind and body.” 

Dr Cross also added that mental healthcare often involves use of mental health legislation. He highlighted how this was not done well in 15 out of 65 patients in the study either on admission or during their hospital stay, even though the patients were detained under mental health legislation.

The report made a number of recommendations, including:

To overcome the divide between mental and physical healthcare, liaison psychiatry services should be fully integrated into general hospitals. The structure and staffing of the liaison psychiatry service should be based on the clinical demand within working hours and out-of-hours so that they can participate as part of the multidisciplinary team

All hospital staff who have interaction with patients, including clinical, clerical and security staff, should receive training in mental health conditions in general hospitals. Training should be developed and offered across the entire career pathway from undergraduate to workplace based continued professional development

Patients who present with known co-existing mental health conditions should have them documented and assessed along with any other clinical conditions that have brought them to hospital. And when seen by mental health services (liaison psychiatry) the review should provide clear and concise documented plans in the general hospital notes at the time of assessment. 

NCEPOD chair, Professor Lesley Regan, said: “For many years mental healthcare in the NHS has been underfunded, and you may rightly conclude from this new NCEPOD report that patients with mental health conditions are seriously disadvantaged when treated for physical disorders in hospital. And, I fear that the patients we studied could well be only the tip of the iceberg.”

She said that the general hospital workforce, including doctors and nurses, has to be educated to understand the gap together with the training and support to have the competence and confidence to bridge the gap at every level of care.

“Treat as One found that in more than a third of the patients whose care was reviewed by liaison psychiatry but delayed, that the liaison psychiatry team did not attend until the patient was declared ‘medically fit’. However, this is a ‘catch 22’ because in many cases the physical illness cannot be treated effectively until the mental illness is recognised. 

“This report should be a clarion call that we have a major problem that will be difficult to untangle, and in the meantime we are failing a significant proportion of our patients.”