February 5, 2012

At UW-Stout, ‘obsessive’ data crunching to save — and improve — lives

Counseling center director pushes UW System to follow suit

About this story

Jenny Peek and Kate Prengaman reported this story with other journalism students in a UW-Madison class taught by Professor Deborah Blum, in collaboration with the nonprofit, nonpartisan Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, which includes Midwestern university journalism professors and students working on news projects in the public interest. The Consortium is supported by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. Read the IJEC consortium stories
Main story: Gaps persist in campus mental health services

The University of Wisconsin-Stout had a problem, counseling director John Achter told the student association last year. Twenty-two percent more students were seeking counseling services than ever before, forcing patients to wait up to 26 days to be seen.

Presented with those numbers, the association designated enough money for Achter to hire a new counselor.

That’s the power of data, Achter says, and why his counseling center’s number crunching borders on “obsessive.” Creating detailed analyses of who uses campus mental health services and why enables Achter to better direct resources to help students in need.

But some UW counseling centers don’t track even basic information on patients. UW-Milwaukee doesn’t count the number of students seen, for example, only the number of appointments. And though UW-Green Bay collects data on patients’ races and ethnicities, it does so on paper forms that it doesn’t analyze — despite the fact that it has the second-highest percentage of Native American students of any UW campus, and Native Americans have the highest suicide rate of any racial or ethnic group in the state.

“We have been trying to reach out to all students, including Native American students,” said Amy Henniges, UW-Green Bay health services director.

Henniges said that although a campus counselor focuses on suicide prevention, the counseling center could do more to reach Native American students through UW-Green Bay’s intercultural center. She added that she is seeking funds to convert to an electronic medical record to improve data reporting.

Achter, for his part, now chairs a UW System subcommittee — created on the heels of a 2008 audit that reported inconsistent data tracking by UW campus mental health centers — which aims to standardize the information collected. The effort, he says, will enable providers to compare “apples to apples,” improving mental health care throughout UW System.

UW-Madison journalism student Monica Hickey contributed reporting.