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University of South Carolina and Emory University Approved for $5.8 Million PCORI Research Award

A project led by the University of South Carolina, Emory University and the South Carolina Department of Mental Health (SCDMH) has been approved for a $5.8 million research funding award by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). The project will study the effectiveness of case management provided by peer specialists for mentally ill patients who have been treated in emergency departments.

UofSC School of Medicine Professor and Clinical Neuropsychiatry and Behavioral Science Chair Dr. Meera Narasimhan, and Emory University Professor and Center for Behavioral Health Policy Studies Director Dr. Benjamin Druss will lead the project. The team includes researchers Gretl Glick, Cathy Lally, Dr. Elizabeth Walker and Paul Weiss.

Patients with mental disorders are frequent users of emergency department (ED) services. However, most do not successfully transition to outpatient care, and many ultimately return to the ED. Programs that help mentally ill patients successfully utilize outpatient care have the potential to improve health outcomes and reduce overcrowding in the ED. Certified peer specialists – people who have experienced mental illness providing follow-up care for other individuals with mental illness – represent a new way to address the issue.

The study will compare outcomes among patients discharged from eight EDs in South Carolina. Each ED will have a professional health care manager (a social worker or nurse) and peer specialist interacting with patients on site. Study findings will help patients, providers and policy makers understand the benefits each type of intervention can offer patients with mental illnesses. The results will also inform the use of lay navigators for other health conditions, and identify opportunities for cross-training multidisciplinary teams that combine peer specialists and professionals.

“This study will help us understand how certified peer specialists can help us solve a pressing treatment need,” said Druss.

Narasimhan stressed the importance of mental health professionals working together to tackle avoidable hospital readmissions. “Collaborative efforts to improve transitions of care have significant implications for quality improvement, cost reduction and equitable access to health care for vulnerable populations,” she said.

SCDMH State Director John Magill added that the agency is thrilled to be part of the collective effort to improve patient care, reduce costs and help limit unnecessary use of the state’s hospital emergency rooms.

Today’s changing health care landscape and emphasis on population health management made the study intriguing to PCORI leaders.

“This project was selected for PCORI funding not only for its scientific merit and commitment to engaging patients and other stakeholders, but also for its potential to fill an important gap in our health knowledge and give people information to help them weigh the effectiveness of their care options,” said PCORI Executive Director Joe Selby, MD, MPH. “We look forward to following the study’s progress and working with the investigators to share the results.”

The award has been approved pending completion of a business and programmatic review by PCORI staff and issuance of a formal award contract. PCORI is an independent, nonprofit organization authorized by Congress in 2010. Its mission is to fund research that will provide patients, their caregivers, and clinicians with the evidence-based information needed to make better-informed healthcare decisions. For more information about PCORI’s funding, visit