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ST. CLOUD – A new unit at CentraCare's St. Cloud Hospital is promising to provide faster and more comfortable assessments of emergency patients experiencing mental health crises — an area sorely lacking across the state.

The EmPATH unit, which opened Monday, is expected to streamline service for psychiatric care, which is the sixth most common reason patients visit St. Cloud's emergency room and equates to nearly 4,000 patients every year.

"We didn't have a place for the patients who need stability — and [for those who] we think we can get stability in a 24-hour period," said Dr. Larry Hook, who is leading the EmPATH team at St. Cloud Hospital.

EmPATH, which stands for emergency psychiatric assessment, treatment and healing, is a model of care that transitions patients away from often chaotic emergency departments into a calming setting where they can be assessed and receive a tailored treatment plan from nurses, psychiatrists and psychotherapists.

Hook said the hospital's emergency department has for decades provided mental health nursing and, more recently, the department started staffing psychiatric providers. But often if a person needed inpatient care, they had to sit in the emergency room for a number of hours before they could be admitted to St. Cloud's mental health unit or transferred to another unit in the state or even North Dakota.

"We were seeing a backlog of patients in the emergency room for mental health reasons who needed to be admitted, simply because there are not enough beds across the state for the patients," Hook said.

St. Cloud Hospital is the second in the state to open an EmPATH unit. The first opened in March at M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital. M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center also plans to open an EmPATH unit for children and adults, according to the organization.

St. Cloud's unit serves patients 18 and older who are out of high school. But the unit could expand to serve child and adolescent patients — an area that's even more underserved in the state.

"How we look today is not how we are going to look next month and certainly not how we're going to look next year," Hook said.

The unit is on the hospital's top floor with a wall of windows overlooking the Mississippi River. It features an open space with recliners for up to 12 patients, calming rooms and spaces that encourage patients to interact and talk or play cards.

"It's really designed to encourage engagement with the staff, as well as engagement between the patients themselves," Hook said.

The unit will serve patients presenting symptoms such as anxiety, depression, hallucinations, prolonged grief or suicidal thoughts.

"It's meant to help the individual who needs something more than just returning back to the community without any intervention but that we expect is going to stabilize within 24 hours," Hook said, noting studies show up to 80% of patients who visit an emergency room with acute psychiatric concerns stabilize within 24 hours.

"A large number of patients can actually do that and get back to their regular lives rather than interrupting their life for several days or maybe even several weeks with an inpatient stay," Hook said.

That then frees up space in the inpatient psychiatric unit, which is intended for patients who require longer-term or more intensive care.

Construction on the unit started in December. It was funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny