How Do You Conduct Outcome Studies?

Being armed with data can empower your organization to provide superior care. Outcome studies will help you better understand your goals and whether you are on the right track to meeting them. It is not enough to simply collect data, however. You need to have a plan for the preparation, collection, analysis, and reporting of the data you collect. It is also essential for you and your team to understand the rationale behind conducting outcome studies.

Why Should My Organization Worry About Outcome Studies?

Outcome studies are, first and foremost, intended to determine whether the interventions you are using are making a positive difference in the lives of the patients you are serving. If you are in the behavioral healthcare industry, it is obvious you want to make a positive impact. Good intentions alone are not going to get you there. Evidence-based techniques ensure that your patients are benefiting from the interventions they are participating in. They also guarantee that your organization’s funds are being put to good use.

Outcome studies can confirm what you already suspect. For example, you might find that the data supports your belief that one of your services is highly successful. On the other hand, outcome studies can generate surprising results. A service that you thought was highly beneficial might not have that effect when held up to scrutiny. The information gained in both of these scenarios is important. You will know with confidence that you should continue funding one service while making improvements or outright changing the other.

Preparation Phase

The best way to set your organization up for success when conducting outcome studies is to plan your evaluation process when you plan your service delivery. For services that you have already been providing for a long time, this is not feasible. It is still something to keep in mind as you plan future endeavors. If your organization is new to outcome studies, you should focus on one thing at a time. This could be a service that you provide that you think benefits your patients, and you want to prove that through data, or it could be an intervention that is newer or not performing as well that you are considering changing or dropping.

Once you have your target, it is important to assemble a team with skills conducive to performing outcome studies. This team should comprise a mix of talents, including project management, data prowess, computer savviness, and familiarity with the services your organization provides. At this early stage, it is also helpful to involve staff associated with the services you are evaluating to reassure them that this is an educational pursuit rather than the scrutiny of poor performance.

Define Outcomes and Performance Indicators

You cannot measure anything without determining what you are measuring and how. The first step is to define outcomes. Outcomes are descriptions of the overall changes you want your organization to effect. For example, a substance abuse treatment center might have the desired outcome of improving the functioning of its patients. 

This, on its own, is broad and difficult to measure, and this is where performance indicators are useful. Performance indicators are specific signs that an outcome has been met, and they can be measured realistically. Some possible performance indicators for the above outcome could be the length of time without using substances, being employed shortly after leaving treatment, or experiencing an improvement in their symptoms as determined by a survey.

Collecting, Analyzing, and Reporting Data

There are many ways to collect data for your outcome studies. In behavioral health contexts, questionnaires given to patients at the beginning and throughout treatment can be the most helpful. These questionnaires establish a baseline prior to the intervention and progress over the course of treatment. Questionnaires should measure changes in various symptoms and be sensitive to improvements in one symptom while others stagnate or worsen. In addition to symptoms, it can be helpful to measure the therapeutic alliance that exists between your providers and their patients. Ensuring confidentiality and informed consent is of the utmost importance.

After collecting data, analysis can help you make sense of it. Descriptive statistics help to visualize the data as it is, while inferential statistics help to draw conclusions from the data by identifying trends and relationships. Once you have your results, the next step is to report them to relevant stakeholders like funders, partners, and community leaders. This can be done through press releases, case studies, testimonials, and reports.

Challenges of Outcome Studies

There will be some aspects of your organization that are difficult or even impossible to measure. This does not mean that those elements are not valuable. For example, the relationships that your organization has with community agencies can bring tremendous value to your organization, such as by referring patients to your services, getting your organization’s name out into the community, and sharing resources. 

This relationship might not translate directly into better outcomes for your patients, but it does not mean that you should stop investing in it. The effects from these types of assets are known as “soft outcomes” and they might not factor into your outcome studies.

Additionally, recognizing the context of your organization is important when conducting outcome studies. If your organization predominantly treats conditions that have slower recovery times or that require more resources, your metrics will look different from organizations that provide short-term and solution-focused interventions. 

Another challenge you might encounter is the time that outcome studies take. If you are just starting to evaluate your organization, it might take years for you to have concrete data about performance. This is due to the nature of the data collection itself as well as the time it takes to refine your process until it works best for your organization.

Outcome studies are an effective way of understanding the quality of your services and making decisions about future funding. Having a powerful data solution makes this process much easier. Lightning Step is the only data management tool your organization will need. Our All-In-One system combines an Electronic Medical Record (EMR), Revenue Cycle Management (RCM), and Customer Relation Management (CRM) in one seamless interface. With all your data in one place, you can easily compile the information you need to conduct outcome studies. Our integrated patient portal makes it simple to collect surveys and consents to further aid in data collection. To learn more about Lightning Step, schedule a demo today.

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