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Life-Saving Ways to Prevent Suicide Prove Less Costly, More Effective Than Standard Care

Life-Saving Ways to Prevent Suicide Prove Less Costly, More Effective than Standard Care

Three life-saving suicide prevention strategies have proven to be more effective and less expensive than usual care given to at-risk patients in hospital emergency departments.

A new study, from researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), found that the three interventions — sending caring postcards or letters following an emergency visit, calling patients to offer support and encourage engagement in follow-up treatment, and cognitive-behavioral therapy — have all proven to be effective, but haven’t been adopted by most hospitals.

It’s an important message, particularly in the midst of National Suicide Prevention Week which runs through Saturday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. More than 44,190 people died by suicide in the United States in 2015 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).

CDC officials also report that hospital emergency rooms treat more than 500,000 people each year for self-harm injuries.

“In the face of a gradually rising suicide rate, the need for effective prevention strategies is urgent,” said NIMH Director Joshua Gordon, M.D., Ph.D. “These findings of cost-effectiveness add to the impetus for implementing these life-saving approaches. Importantly, they also make a strong case for expanding screening, which would allow us to reach many more of those at risk with life-saving interventions.”

Each of the three interventions has been tested in randomized controlled trials and found to reduce patients’ suicide risk on the order of 30 to 50 percent, according to the researchers.

The latest study looks at the cost-effectiveness of the strategies.

The researchers carried out Monte Carlo simulations, a method of evaluating the possible consequences of an action when many unpredictable factors could affect the outcome.

Software enabled researchers to carry out repeated simulations of the chain of events following a choice — in this case, alternative emergency department-based suicide prevention interventions — with different values assigned to factors that can influence the outcome. Thousands of simulations reveal the range of outcomes possible and the probabilities of each.

The researchers, led by Michael Schoenbaum, Ph.D., Senior Advisor for Mental Health Services, Epidemiology, and Economics in NIMH’s Division of Services and Intervention Research, modeled a roughly year-long period following the arrival of patients at an emergency department.

The chain of events they considered encompassed entry of the patient to an emergency department, screening for suicide risk, emergency department-based treatment or hospitalization, and outcomes. It could also include additional visits to the emergency department, if the person considered or attempted suicide again during the follow-up period.

The investigators estimated the cost of each intervention by combining information on health services reported in previous clinical trials and national rates for medical procedures, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations.

Assessing the cost-effectiveness of an intervention — and providing a basis for comparing one intervention with another — involves estimating the cost of achieving a defined health outcome. In this case, investigators looked at the cost incurred against life years (gained as a result of suicides prevented) in the cases modeled in the study.

Relative to usual care, the use of postcards both reduced suicide attempts and deaths and slightly reduced health care costs, making it a “dominant” intervention in terms of cost-effectiveness, according to the study’s findings.

In this strategy, hospital staff mail follow-up postcards each month for four months to all patients identified at risk, and then every other month for a total of eight cards.

Telephone outreach, which involved hospital staff calling patients to offer support and encouragement in follow-up treatment, and referrals to cognitive behavioral therapy reduced suicide attempts and deaths while increasing health care costs slightly. The telephone intervention increased costs by $5,900, while cognitive behavioral therapy increased costs by $18,800 per additional life-year saved, according to the study’s findings.

A commonly used benchmark for cost-effectiveness — the amount a society is willing to pay for the benefit accrued by a health care procedure — is $50,000 per additional life-year, the researchers said.

And recent research suggests that that amount is conservative — that is, our society is willing to pay considerably more per life-year, they add.

The simulation results suggest that, even if the societal willingness to pay is assumed to be lower than $50,000, the approaches are still likely to be cost effective relative to usual care.

Telephone care is almost certain to be cost effective relative to usual care if willingness to pay is $20,000, while the probability that cognitive behavioral therapy will be more cost effective is 67 percent.

The researchers also point out that even if these prevention approaches were widely used, their impact is limited by the extent to which people at risk are identified for treatment through screening.

A recent study reported that screening all adults 18 and older entering an emergency department, regardless of the reason for the visit, nearly doubled the rate of identification of those at risk. The model suggests that universal screening of patients could substantially increase the public health benefits of implementing the prevention strategies modeled in this study.

“Suicide risk is relatively common among people who seek care from a hospital emergency department,” said Schoenbaum. “It’s really important for us to identify better ways to reduce suicide risk in this group, and to implement those widely.”

The study was published in journal Psychiatric Services.

Source: National Institutes of Health

Life-Saving Ways to Prevent Suicide Prove Less Costly, More Effective than Standard Care

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Life-Saving Ways to Prevent Suicide Prove Less Costly, More Effective than Standard Care. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 Sep 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.