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Best Practices for Matching New Patients with Your Therapists

Virtual healthcare and online therapist databases have made it easier than ever to find mental health providers. But if you’re an individual seeking therapy, or the manager of a multi-provider practice looking to assign new patients to clinicians, it’s important – for optimal therapist matching – to evaluate which therapist is the best “fit” for a given patient.

Therapists are not interchangeable. They have different strengths, different backgrounds, different professional experiences, and prefer different treatment methods. Any given therapist might be a brilliant fit for one patient but have middling results with another.

Careful therapist matching can lead to better mental health outcomes for patients and happier, more confident providers. Using a few best practices, you can strengthen the matching process and realize enhanced results.

Importance of Therapist Matching

Therapist matching involves two aspects. First, the therapist should have experience treating the specific mental health challenge the patient is presenting with. Second, patient and therapist should be able to develop trust and a positive rapport.

Research indicates that both of these factors have measurable effects on the success of mental health treatment.

A 2021 study examined the importance of “measurement-based matching,” or matching patients to therapists who have demonstrated success at treating their particular diagnosis. Of the study’s 218 patients, some were assigned to therapists using measurement-based matching, while some were assigned in a different manner. After 16 weeks of treatment, the patients who were assigned via measurement-based matching achieved better results in “general symptomatic and functional impairment, global psychological distress, and domain-specific impairment” compared to the control group.

Similarly, a 2012 study looked at the role of the therapeutic alliance in mental health outcomes. Previous research had suggested that strong rapport with providers improves patient outcomes. The 2012 study confirmed this, showing that even when researchers controlled for other factors (such as type of treatment used or how past studies were designed), the level of trust and cooperation between therapist and patient still predicted improved outcomes.

The quality of the match matters. It holds implications for treatment success, healing, and the reputation of your practice.

How to Assess Therapists

Whether you’re a patient seeking therapy, or a practice manager assigning new patients to providers, a few guidelines can help you select the best provider for the job.

1. Look for previous experience treating this diagnosis and/or set of symptoms.

Look for a therapist with a history of helping patients with similar challenges. The 2021 study labeled therapists as measurably qualified to treat a certain diagnosis if they’d treated at least 15 people with that diagnosis before. While there’s nothing magical about the number 15, the study’s design suggests that a history of repeated successes in the same area is important.

Many therapists list specific areas of interest and expertise on their personal web site, on their profile page at the practice’s web site, or on profile listings in searchable therapist databases. Patients can check these listed areas of expertise against their own symptoms or diagnosis.

You can also check to see if the therapist in question has published work related to a specific diagnosis in a peer-reviewed journal.

Finally, look into a practitioner’s training and education, as well as any certifications, to see if their training matches the need at hand.

2. Do they offer the right treatment type?

Different mental health challenges call for different types of treatment.

Depression and anxiety, for example, frequently respond well to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or psychodynamic therapy. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a first-line treatment for borderline personality disorder. Patients suffering from PTSD may wish to try traditional CBT or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, which has gained popularity as a PTSD treatment in recent years.

Not all providers offer all treatment types, so it’s important to check and see if the treatment they offer is recommended for the diagnosis.

3. Demographics and Rapport

Mental health treatment can be a vulnerable process. It may require patients to discuss uncomfortable or painful things. This is why rapport with the therapist is important.

Many factors can affect a patient’s comfort level with a provider. They may prefer a provider of a certain racial background, gender, or age. They may require providers who understand specific types of lived experiences, such as LGBTQIA+ identities. A patient may also be more comfortable with a provider who speaks their first language.

4. Practical Considerations

In an ideal world, insurance coverage and geographic availability would not affect patients’ provider preferences. Realistically, these things sometimes factor into the therapist matching process.

Many patients will need to select from among providers they can afford under their insurance plan. Patients who require in-person visits may have a limited pool of practitioners in the local area. Even providers who do virtual visits may only be licensed to treat individuals in certain states.

These considerations may help a patient narrow down which provider best fits their needs.

How to Assess Patients

Practice managers and therapists have their own checklist to consider when deciding whether a particular patient is a good fit for a provider.

First, consider the provider’s style of interaction vs what kind of therapeutic response the patient is seeking. Some therapists focus on problem-solving with patients, offering tools and suggested next steps. That’s a good fit for a patient who wants help overcoming a problem. On the other hand, some therapists excel at being the proverbial “listening ear.” This might not be the right approach for a solutions-focused patient, but might be perfect for a patient who wants to be heard and have their feelings validated.

Second, consider what kind of availability this patient needs from a therapist. Some patients want the security of being able to reach their provider in an emergency. Providers who limit themselves to strict office hours might need to pass such patients along to a more available colleague. Likewise, you’ll have to consider when the patient is typically available for pre-scheduled appointments, and which providers have schedules that match.

Finally, as a therapist, do a gut-check to see if you feel confident in treating this patient and their symptoms. Do you feel that you could develop a rapport with this person? Do you have any concerns about being able to understand and empathize with their lived experience? If your prospective patient has a background, culture, or worldview that is significantly different from yours, how will you educate yourself about their background or perspective?

How to Match Therapists and Patients

From a practice management standpoint, there are two methods to match therapist and patient: staff can do it manually, or you can rely on a patient-provider matching solution.

If this task falls to staff, they will check a prospective patient’s insurance and availability against providers who are taking new patients. They’ll gather information about a prospective patient’s mental health symptoms and any previous diagnoses. Then, staff will review each available provider and try to make an educated guess about which one is the right fit.

A more efficient way to conduct patient-provider matching is to let an algorithm do it for you. Solutions like Patient Provider Matching from Valant can collect information regarding what a patient is looking for in a provider, such as demographic information, insurance accepted, treatment types provided, and availability. The algorithm is then able to match those things against a database of your practitioners, and tell you which providers are the best fit.

When it comes to finding the right practitioner, don’t take shortcuts. Taking the time to research a therapist’s qualifications and to gauge the strength of rapport should be a normal part of the therapeutic process. It will give patients the best results in the long run. And with the right EHR, the process is even easier.