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Treatment plans are an often-overlooked element of quality mental health treatment. Some providers see them as inefficient busywork, a necessary evil to meet compliance standards. But take another look. Treatment plans in counseling have value far beyond compliance. They can actually enhance patient care and benefit your practice’s efficiency.

If you’re skeptical about their value, keep reading. The benefits they offer may surprise you, and the process of integrating them into treatment is easier than you might think.

Understanding Treatment Plans in Counseling

A treatment plan is a document that records a patient’s current mental health status and lays out goals for the outcome of their treatment. It usually includes an assessment and diagnosis, treatment goals and objectives, interventions and strategies that the provider plans to use, and an approximate timeline for the treatment journey. The exact structure and content of treatment plans may vary, but these are the core elements.

This document provides a clear roadmap you can use to ensure your treatment stays on track with a client’s goals. You will probably adjust the treatment plan as the client’s mental health journey progresses, so it remains a guiding document to help you make clinical decisions and know how to measure progress.

Goals and Objectives

“Goals” in a mental health treatment plan refer to the outcomes you and the patient hope to achieve with therapy. For many patients, this will be a reduction in unwanted symptoms, or coping strategies to manage their mental health alongside daily life. “Objectives” are the smaller steps that must be taken to reach those goals.

You and your client will probably reference the goals and objectives section of the treatment plan regularly as the treatment journey unfolds.

Using SMART goals can increase the likelihood of treatment success. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Laying out such concrete goals and objectives helps you and your patient to be clear on how you are treating them and what the outcome should look like.


“Methods” is another way of saying interventions or strategies that will be used to help the patient reach their goals. The methods section will likely lay out what type of therapy is being utilized, any psychoeducation that needs to happen, medications the client is taken, progress monitoring, etc.

Some of these methods, such as choosing a therapy modality, are things you will do for the patient. Some of the methods will be strategies clients need to learn and maintain in their own life—for example, exposure and response prevention practice for OCD clients, or sticking to a doctor-approved exercise schedule to help alleviate depression.


Setting a timeline for treatment helps both clinician and patient to stay focused on doing the work. Mental health goals can tend to be vague, since they largely center around subjective internal experience, so setting time boundaries is a way to make sure that the client is truly moving forward.

Keep in mind that timelines need not be set in stone. As treatment continues, you may decide that the timeline needs to be stretched or shortened, depending on how the client is responding to treatment.

Timelines are about more than when therapy will be “complete.” They can also be used to help you check on progress markers. Doing this check regularly can help you see more quickly whether you need to change intervention strategies, which can lead to better outcomes at a faster pace.


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Enhancing Patient Outcomes

Far from being a formality of documentation, treatment plans in counseling can actually contribute to better patient outcomes.

Laying out a clear picture of a client’s challenges and progress can help the clinician target their interventions more exactly to match the patient’s needs. Being able to refer back to concrete goals can help you monitor the success of your intervention strategy, and help you see the need for any change to your strategy sooner.

Plus, collaboration with your client to create the plan gives better clarity on what the client wants from therapy. Their desires and expectations should be top of mind while you treat, so that they will get the results that matter to them.

Facilitating Communication

Treatment plans can also be a vehicle for better communication with your client. Patients and therapists often use the treatment plan as a guiding document to discuss the steps needed to reach the treatment goal(s). These steps, also called objectives, may often be a client’s “homework” between sessions, so it’s beneficial to have them clearly documented from the outset.

On a broader scale, treatment plans give patients language to explain what they want from treatment and what they’re experiencing during the process. It also assists you in explaining your treatment methods to them. This encourages patients to be actively involved in treatment, rather than passive recipients of a process they don’t understand.

Treatment plans also help therapists quickly communicate with other care providers and with insurance by capturing patient information in a standardized way. This allows insurance providers to assess the value and success of a treatment, and it allows providers who may be involved in the patient’s care to have a clear overview of their therapy experience.

Providing a Framework

These documents function as a framework for your sessions with clients so you aren’t trying to pull strategies together on the fly. They also help you identify ways to measure patient progress, since goals and objectives are specific and measurable. This is particularly true if you use outcome measures in your practice, which can be a boon when seeking higher compensation from payers.

Importantly, strong treatment planning increases your professional accountability. It gives you a standard to measure your treatment outcomes against.

Treatment Planning for Mental vs. Physical Health

The documentation of goals for treatment is important to mental health in a unique way compared to physical healthcare. Most physical healthcare services have clear and obvious goals because they’re addressing physical problems. Appropriate functioning of the body can often be measured much more easily than appropriate functioning of the mind.

Without deliberate steps to document desired outcomes, mental health treatment runs the risk of becoming murky in its goals. It relies on patients communicating their subjective experiences. Anything that captures goals in a more objective manner can help prevent treatment from becoming aimless and unfocused. You always have something clear to refer back to, even when your clients don’t feel clear about their progress or their needs.

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Common Clinician Complaints and Solutions

Despite their value, treatment plans aren’t without their problems. Luckily, with the help of modern EHRs and solid treatment planning strategies, it’s possible to troubleshoot the snags and make treatment plans an easy part of your therapy process.

Treatment plans done inefficiently may start to feel like more busywork—more paperwork, more time, more documents to keep track of. But modern software solutions allows clinicians to minimize busywork and remove the burden of extra time that these documents are perceived to create.

  • EHR integration can help with keeping treatment plans organized in patient records.
  • Use prebuilt treatment plan templates with customization features to speed the creation of the basic documents, so that you will only have to spend time tweaking them for the needs of each patient.
  • Streamline your workflow as much as possible through software automation. Some EHRs come with auto-generating narrative features and easy decision tree functions to make creation of the treatment plan as quick and painless as possible, making them a more seamless part of your day.

Remember that customization features are key to any prebuilt template or software solution. There’s a misconception that treatment plans are rigid documents that can’t easily capture the nuances of each patient. But when your plans are customizable and editable, you can quickly build a basic structure that is easy to tailor to patient needs.

Far from being stagnant and useless, customizable treatment plans can be dynamic and responsive from first appointment to last.

Navigating Compliance Requirements

Don’t forget that treatment plans are part of compliance for many health insurance and governmental regulations. Adhering to this requirement helps smooth the path in the event of audits and inspections. And, because audits also look at the overall clinical care being given to patients, your treatment plans are one thing that help to demonstrate your staff’s competence at selecting appropriate, evidence-based treatments for each client.

Getting Started with Treatment Plans

To begin integrating treatment planning into your practice, you’ll need to take the following steps.

  • Start by educating your staff about the importance of treatment plans, so it won’t be seen as unnecessary busywork. Talk with clinicians, administrative staff, and support personnel to hear their concerns and explain the benefits.
  • Support clinicians in knowing how to talk to their patients about collaborating on treatment plans. Patients, too, may not understand the value of this document right away, and will appreciate being given a little context on how it can help their treatment results.
  • Make sure your technology supports treatment planning. Look for a mental health-specific EHR that comes with prebuilt treatment plan templates but easily allows for customization.

Adopt or Revise A Treatment Planning Protocol

Treatment planning can enhance patient outcomes and communication and keep your treatment focused on patients’ most important goals. It can help anchor the often-subjective nature of mental health experiences in something specific and measurable to aid you in offering your patients the best help you can possibly give them. While some may see these plans as unnecessary or inefficient, they can become an integrated and easy part of your practice’s daily habits.

Consider adopting or revising a treatment planning process at your practice. With the right software support, it is a very achievable goal.