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Resource Center > System-Level Toolkit > Improved Outcomes

Improved Outcomes

Research has shown that longer lengths of stay in treatment or treatment completion improve client outcomes including healthcare utilization, criminal justice activity, and employment. At the same time, NIATx has introduced a process improvement model that has been successfully adopted by substance abuse treatment providers across the country to improve access and retention. Despite the lessons learned and an ever-expanding knowledge base, the examination and assessment of the relationship between treatment process measures and client treatment outcomes remains a key challenge in the assessment of quality of service in behavioral health care. While research by the Washington Circle Group found a relationship between quality indicators related to retention and criminal justice activity (Garnick et al, 2007), it is important to explore the juxtaposition of approaches to process improvement targeting provider process measures and the long term effect of these changes on both proximal and distal client outcomes.

The information provided here helps set the stage for future research by:

  • Identifying the different types of client outcomes
  • Discussing the importance of measuring these outcomes
  • Providing an overview of the literature related to a few key client outcomes

In recent years, significant changes have been introduced in behavioral health. The Institute of Medicine report for behavioral health care has provided a quality improvement framework (IOM, 2006). Subsequently, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Outcomes Monitoring System outlines ten key state level outcome domains for mental health, substance abuse and prevention in order to evaluate the long term impact of treatment. The evolution of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant into the Performance Partnership Grant increased federal and state pressure on publicly funded alcohol and drug abuse treatment providers to demonstrate improved client outcomes on measures of health care utilization, mental health, criminal justice involvement, and employment as well as reductions in alcohol and drug use. As a result, state authorities are requiring community treatment programs to monitor client outcomes and assess treatment performance. Ongoing assessments of performance can improve provider processes by using data to drive change (Commons et al., 1997; McLellan et al., 2008).

Proximal and Distal Outcomes

When tracking outcomes, it is important to distinguish between proximal versus distal outcomes from the client perspective. In general, a proximal client outcome is one that can be measured on more of a short term basis and these measures often rely on client self-reports to evaluate changes over time. For example, an agency might look at changes in self-reported drug use from admission to discharge or use the BASIS-24, measured at distinct points in the client treatment episode, as a measure of improvement. An underlying challenge with client self-report measures often is tracking down the client for follow-up, which is an argument for conducting short yet meaningful surveys at times other than discharge during the clients treatment episode.

Distal outcomes are often tracked longitudinally over time and these may involve either client self-reports or linkages to state administrative data sets. In the former, the clients are often tracked over a designated time period post discharge (12 months, 3 years etc) for a specific measure. The ones that are most prevalent in the literature are abstinence, re-admission, or changes in employment. Again, it is very important to remember that these are client self-reported changes that involve tracking down the client for follow-up—not always an easy task. Most of these studies involve small samples, certainly no larger than a couple of hundred clients. When linking to state administrative data sets, researchers are able to track the impact of treatment on a large population set for specific measures which, again relying on the literature, are more likely to be changes in health care utilization and criminal justice activity. The level of sophistication of the analysis or the availability of these distal client outcome measures depends on the quality of the state administrative data systems and the ability to link client records together.

Measuring Treatment Outcomes

There is increasing demand for evidence of the effectiveness of drug treatment services after care. Policymakers, consumers, and other stakeholders require publicly funded substance abuse treatment systems to document that services are appropriate, effective, and cost-effective (McCarty et al., 1998). The Institute of Medicine (1990) reported that state information systems are often underutilized, poorly maintained, and underdeveloped. Following this criticism, many state administrations improved their data systems to better track delivery of drug abuse treatment services. The data systems remain idiosyncratic and have limitations (McCarty et al., 1998). Researchers, in partnership with state administrators, have begun overcoming these limitations by leveraging technology to link across state databases (Hser & Evans 2008; Campbell, 2009; Campbell et al., 2008). In order to develop appropriate research protocols, researchers working with state administrative datasets need to identify and select the appropriate data sources, determine how to obtain the required data, and understand the advantages and challenges of the selected data sources (Garnick et al., 2002).

Treatment Outcomes

Drug Abuse and Criminal Activity

Criminal justice involvement is an important outcome measure due to the prevalence of criminal behavior by those with substance abuse problems and the association of drug use with crime (Rajkumar & French, 1997). The associated economic and societal cost of drug and alcohol related crime has been estimated at approximately $72 billion, in 1999 dollars, for medical and mental health care and other tangible expenses such as public property damage and services (Miller et al., 2006). Two-thirds of all inmates report symptoms meeting criteria for substance abuse, are more likely to have a prior criminal record (70 percent versus 46 percent), and are twice as likely to have three or more prior incarceration sentences (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2005). The cost to society per incarceration is approximately $23,000 per annum (U.S. Dept. of Justice, 2004). Drug treatment’s most substantial and consistent economic benefits are avoided costs of criminal activity (McCollister & French, 2003). Drug treatment can reduce those costs; analysis of California Treatment Outcome Protocol data found decreases in costs associated with victimization from criminal activities and additional costs associated with crimes and incarceration (Ettner et al., 2006).

Drug treatment also reduces criminal activity. Longitudinal studies involving one-year and five-year follow-ups found that individuals who remained in treatment at least one week were less likely to commit a crime (Zarkin et al., 2002) and illegal activity or re-offenses were reduced for clients treated for six months or longer (French et al., 1993; Holloway, 2006; Hubbard et al., 2003). The Drug Abuse Reporting Program (DARP) and the Treatment Outcome Prospective Study (TOPS) also document large decreases in criminal involvement as measured by arrests, convictions, and incarcerations post treatment (Farabee et al., 2004; Grella et al., 2006; Hubbard et al., 1989; Hser & Evans, 2008; Sells & Simpson, 1980; Simpson, 1981; Simpson & Sells, 1982; 1990). Research has also shown that length of stay and treatment engagement impacts post-treatment criminal activity. Longer lengths of stay in treatment have a negative and statistically significant impact on subsequent criminal activity (French et al., 1993). A recent study in Oklahoma found that clients who initiate a new outpatient treatment episode and remain engaged in treatment are significantly less likely to be arrested or incarcerated within the next year (Garnick et al., 2007).

Drug Abuse and Employment

Chronic unemployment is common among drug users and is related to criminal behavior, continued drug use, and poor treatment results (Platt, 1995). In 2005, 29 percent of TEDS admissions aged 16 and over were employed (Office of Applied Studies, 2006). Employment contributes to drug abuse treatment success and is an important treatment outcome (French et al., 1993; Institute of Medicine, 1990; Leshner, 1997). Employment is often examined in terms of prior employability and an individual’s ability to reconnect with the job market upon treatment completion. Individuals who successfully complete treatment are more likely to be employed post discharge, have fewer work related problems, and earn higher incomes (Kamara & Van Der Hyde, 1998; Slaymaker et al., 2006; Wickizer et al., 2000; Zarkin et al., 2002; Finigan et al., 1996; Luchansky et al., 2000; Metsch et al., 2003). For example, Brown et al. (1997) found that clients who complete treatment earned an average of $145 more per month than clients who were assessed but not admitted. Studies also show a relationship between length of stay in treatment and employment outcomes. Results from the TOPPS II Interstate Cooperative Study Group (Arria, 2003), which examined the impact of treatment completion on employment in three states, found that earned income improved from 22 percent to 49 percent for completers and that the length of time in treatment, regardless of completion status, was significantly associated with the likelihood of employment one year post treatment. Successful post-treatment employment is also associated with decreased relapse among drug users following treatment (Wolkstein & Spiller, 1998) and post-treatment community functioning and community reintegration (Comerford, 1999; Platt, 1995; Room, 1998).

Drug Abuse and Medicaid Utilization

Drug abuse can have a substantial impact on Medicaid utilization and cost given the high rates of physical and mental health co-morbidity among drug-using adults and the resulting need for care. Medicaid beneficiaries diagnosed with a drug use disorder use more medical care and have higher medical expenditures than beneficiaries with other behavioral health conditions but no drug use disorder (Clark et al., 2009). A significant portion of medical encounters with drug-using adults occur in high cost, acute care settings. Drug-using adults are more than twice as likely to visit an emergency department and more than six times more likely to be hospitalized than the general population (Stein, 1993). Outcome research suggests that clients who successfully receive treatment use fewer health services and reduce other medical costs (Parthasarathy et al., 2001; McCollister & French, 2003; Ettner et al., 2006; Wickizer et al., 2006), including Medicaid expenditures (McConnell et al., 2008). In their study of the costs of substance abuse to the Medicaid hospital care program, Fox et al. (1995) discovered more 60 medical conditions involving 1100 diagnoses that were at least partially attributable to the patients’ substance abuse. Given these findings, an estimated 4 million days (1 of 5 Medicaid hospital days) were devoted to care that was substance abuse related, accounting for almost $8 billion in Medicaid expenditures.

Long-term costs of Medicaid-insured patients as compared to demographically matched commercially insured patients decline after enrollment in drug treatment (Walter et al., 2005). Studies linking substance abuse data found that treatment completion reduces inpatient health care utilization, including mental health services; these gains are offset by a subsequent increase in outpatient utilization (Hser & Evans, 2008; Maynard et al., 2000; Shephard et al., 2002; Wickizer et al., 2006). Similar studies examining the impact of policy changes on health care utilization (Deck et al., 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006; Fuller et al., 2006) illustrate how public policies affecting access to addiction treatment can influence Medicaid utilization.


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