A centralized approach to access is worth exploring, particularly when launching a mental health and addictions network. The concept is often raised because people accessing services are confused about what is available where, and what wait times can be expected. In theory, a single point of access can help streamline registration by ensuring that the client is connected to the right provider from the very beginning.
The idea of forming a central intake team to take on the task of navigating services for all inbound requests is great. This team would become ‘service experts,’ trained to quickly determine what client needs what service, and their eligibility. However, bringing a network planning committee to agreement on an actual process can be difficult. Enthusiasm is quickly replaced by analysis paralysis. Here are some actions that can kickstart a regional central intake project, and gain momentum towards coordinated service access.
1. Map all the service assets
A strong network contains many organizations, each offering a different variety of services. It is important to clarify the services each agency delivers, where they are located and how people normally access these services. Overlaps and gaps will be evident. Decide as a group which types of services will be the primary focus of the network’s central intake and work to fully understand their intake processes.
2. Start with less complex health services
You don't have to streamline the access process for everything, all at once. This can be overwhelming. Rather, we recommend first tackling the least complex health care services first. For example, an intensive service that is provided to a patient every week over many months, with a several year wait list will have a more complicated path to access. Leave this for later, once you have some momentum from early successes. Choose to coordinate access to publicly accessible counselling before tackling referral based assertive community treatment programs, for example.
3. Don't over-collect information
Every agency has a service with its own referral form. When centralizing access to a specific service type, be ruthless about what should be included in any new form. Only include the minimum information required that the central intake team needs to successfully route the referral. The target service will require its own relevant information which comes later in the process, often with a different form.
4. Have clear routing criteria
The central intake team should have a decision support tool to ensure they have a clear process for determining which provider receives the next referral. Digitize this process and communicate it broadly across all partner organizations so they understand when and how they will receive referrals. This ensures buy-in from all partners. Ideally, each provider should be so familiar with the process that they are able to route referrals to other providers in the network, and if pressed, could actually work in the central intake area.
We all know what it feels like to get stuck in a planning process. A regional central intake process can feel enormous, and this feeling can deter the most well-intentioned from taking a first step. Taking small, measurable steps helps build momentum for more ambitious goals.