Engaging High-Need Patients in Intensive Outpatient Programs: A Qualitative Synthesis of Engagement Strategies

J Gen Intern Med. 2018 Nov;33(11):1937-1944. doi: 10.1007/s11606-018-4608-2. Epub 2018 Aug 10.


Background: Intensive outpatient programs address the complex medical, social, and behavioral needs of individuals who account for disproportionate healthcare costs. Despite their promise, the impact of these programs is often diminished due to patient engagement challenges (i.e., low rates of patient participation and partnership in care).

Objective: The objective of this study was to identify intensive outpatient program features and strategies that increase high-need patient engagement in these programs.

Design: Qualitative study.

Participants: Twenty program leaders and clinicians from 12 intensive outpatient programs in academic, county, Veterans Affairs, community, and private healthcare settings.

Approach: A questionnaire and semi-structured interviews were used to identify common barriers to patient engagement in intensive outpatient programs and strategies employed by programs to address these challenges. We used content analysis methods to code patient engagement barriers and strategies and to identify program features that facilitate patient engagement.

Key results: The most common barriers to patient engagement in intensive outpatient programs included physical symptoms/limitations, mental illness, care fragmentation across providers and services, isolation/lack of social support, financial insecurity, and poor social and neighborhood conditions. Patient engagement strategies included concrete services to support communication and use of recommended services, activities to foster patient trust and relationships with program staff, and counseling to build insight and problem-solving capabilities. Program features that were identified as enhancing engagement efforts included: 1) multidisciplinary teams with diverse skills, knowledge, and personalities to facilitate relationship building; 2) adequate staffing and resources to handle the demands of high-need patients; and 3) a philosophy that permitted flexibility and patient-centeredness.

Conclusions: Promising clinical, interpersonal, and population-based approaches to engaging high-need patients frequently deviate from standard practice and require creative and proactive staff with adequate time, resources, and flexibility to address patients' needs on patients' terms.

Keywords: care management; patient engagement; patient-centered care; primary care; vulnerable populations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Ambulatory Care / methods*
  • Ambulatory Care / psychology
  • Ambulatory Care / standards*
  • Health Personnel / psychology
  • Health Personnel / standards
  • Health Services Needs and Demand / standards*
  • Humans
  • Patient Participation / methods*
  • Patient Participation / psychology
  • Qualitative Research*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires