Assessment Dilemmas and FAQ's

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Everyone does intake assessment a little differently. On one end of the spectrum we have clinicians who simply have clients sign a one page consent form and then dive into the client's ongoing struggles and then transition to a traditional therapy session. Not much discussion about policies, not much paperwork, and history on an as needed basis ongoing.

On the other end of the spectrum we have clinicians who use a structured intake document to gather biopsychosocial data and may use up to three sessions to complete this document and formulate a diagnosis. Lots of discussion about history, lots of paperwork and notes, and allowing plenty of time to evaluate symptoms as they develop.

And then a lot of us (myself included) are somewhere in the middle. 

Since you may be curious about my personal take on this, I'll share my own process here. But do please note that I often recommend people do things differently, based on their own practice and experience. It just depends on what works best for you

My assessment process

Personally, I use a structured form and ask clients to complete this form ahead of time. I do this for a few reasons:

  1. I get to read the client's description of their problem, strengths, etc. in their own words. I can then use this to build rapport more easily and it often gives me a better understanding of what's going on, even if we've already had a detailed consultation over the phone.
  2. It saves me time. Just as important as the above, I don't have a huge form to complete during or after the session! 
  3. It helps my memory. Since the form is mostly (if not all) completed I can focus on asking follow up questions, diving deeper into relevant topics or asking about things that may have been skipped. I don't have to worry about doing the whole thing or trying to write down important quotes or information in the moment.

I typically look over the form before meeting with the client and jot down a few notes to myself about further questions or things to explore. However, when the client arrives I first make sure they understood all the paperwork (which they typically sign ahead of time, as well) and review the relevant important things like limits to confidentiality. Then I ask them to tell me more about why they're seeking help at this time and go from there.

So, while I do start out fairly structured, I let things unfold once we have the formalities out of the way. Sometimes the topics we cover are many and sometimes we are much more focused. It really depends on the client. 

However, near the end of the first session, I do make sure to give them an idea about how I think I can help, how I work, and sometimes I will also give a potential timeframe. For EAP or insurance, this timeframe can be very important because it means we're already discussing how to best use our time together since it may be limited. I've found that clients really appreciate this open and honest communication and it helps them become more engaged. 

We will then review what we think our goals for working together are and move on from there. These things often change and that's okay, but after the first session I like for us both to have an idea about how we'll be working together and for the client to be thinking about how they can evaluate me and whether or not I'm the best fit to help them. 

So, that's my structured and unstructured assessment process! I get a formal intake document and a treatment planning discussion in there, but focus primarily on connecting with the client and learning more about their needs and goals.

Your FAQ's about assessment

So what is "recommended" or "best practice?" What works best for insurance? How much time do you need to spend on an assessment? Well, I get a lot of more specific questions like these and below I'm going to address them!

Continuing our FAQ series, below are questions from the QA Prep community about issues related to intake assessment. I do my best to answer these questions based upon my own experience but welcome your feedback below in the comments. Share your tips with us, as well!

"Because assessment is an ongoing process, how in depth are you when completing an assessment at the initial session?"

As I mentioned in my own process above, I am in-depth but only as it relates to the client's current needs. For example, if I am working with someone who is experiencing work stress and not being fulfilled at work, I often do not go into childhood history or past trauma. However, if the client is struggling with managing expectations at home and work because of a difficult relationship with their parents who also provide childcare, that may be a more relevant topic that we dive into.

Of course, we will always gather more information and continue assessing clients ongoing. That is a given.

However, the purpose of an initial assessment is really to make sure you have a clear understanding of the client's need so that you can adequately plan for their treatment. 

That means you want to have answers related to things like:

  • Whether or not you are within your training and expertise to treat this client's need/problem
  • What additional resources or collaboration may be needed (e.g. physician, psychiatrist, couples counselor, sobriety services, etc.)
  • For insurance, whether or not the client meets medical necessity criteria

So, I would say that I am in-depth regarding the "presenting problem" but not necessarily other topics. However, if you bill to insurance companies you may still need to ask other questions and this may limit your ability to be as in-depth, or may simply extend the assessment timeframe. I'll address these specific things below...

"Are there specific questions that must be in the intake assessment? How long should the assessment be?"

Yes, there are a few things I recommend every clinician review as soon as possible with clients:

  • Reason for seeking treatment
  • Goals for working together
  • Strengths and hobbies
  • Current living situation
  • Potential or past feelings/thoughts of suicidality or homicidality
  • Criminal history
  • Substance abuse history

The reason I listed the above things is that I believe these are all things that can become very important information very quickly, depending on the client's answer. For example, if you work in an office alone and sometimes work late at night you will want to know about any history of violent behavior from potential clients. Likewise, it is important to assess suicidality as soon as possible so that you can address this if it is a concern. 

I also think it is important to quickly assess the reason the client is seeking treatment so that you can make sure you are the best counselor to help this client, as well as make sure you provide referrals to additional resources in the community. 

Based upon your specific practice or population, you may also find other things are important to discuss initially. Decide on a structure and then stick with it for a certain length of time to see how it works. There have been quite a few times when I was tempted to leave a question out, thinking it did not relate to a particular individual, but was then surprised that it was quite relevant. So once you decide a question is important for your intake assessment, stay with it. Evaluate every 6-12 months to make sure the questions you ask are still relevant. 

You may also want to consider what has been helpful for you in the past or compare this with your own experience of being in therapy and what you liked about the first session or what you feel was missing.

Pay attention to your intuition and to any gut feelings. I have had a few experiences where I felt compelled to ask a question I don't normally ask and the ensuing conversation turned out to be extremely important. So, while I do encourage a basic structure, I think using your clinical judgement is paramount.

Lastly, for insurance clients (even those for whom you simply provide a super bill), I would add a few other things so that you directly address the important topic of medical necessity:

  • Identify the specific behaviors/symptoms that meet criteria for a diagnosis. Make sure to include how these manifest in real life, rather than simply listing off psychobabble terms like "insomnia," "anhedonia," or "hypervigilance."
  • Identify how these behaviors cause an impairment in the client's life. Make sure you can clearly link the diagnosis to a need you can address.
  • List any other treatment providers. If the client has an ongoing medical condition then you'll want to discuss whether or not collaboration is needed since this is often encouraged by insurance companies.

There are many other things to consider when your client is choosing to let insurance pay for their services, but these are the key things to include when you are assessing clients. 

"A client recently asked that I change her diagnosis from major depressive disorder to generalized anxiety. What should I do?"

Here we are talking about the ongoing aspect of assessment, as well as a legal and ethical dilemma. Firstly, a client's diagnosis should always be based upon their presented/reported symptoms. That is why it is important to include these symptoms/behaviors in your initial assessment, if you provide a diagnosis for clients.

To "under diagnose" or "over diagnose" or change a diagnosis without justification is FRAUD. Fraud is both illegal and unethical.

It's that plain and simple. In this particular circumstance, I would discuss with the client what their concerns are, how they came to this conclusion, and why they are seeking the change. I also find it helpful to educate clients about the concept of diagnoses and will sometimes review the DSM with them. 

Hopefully, this creates open communication as well as a better understanding about mental health symptoms and treatment, in general. 

Lastly, I also want to note here that I am not discounting the client's question. The client may actually be right! Perhaps they have not shared certain things, did some research on Google, and were able to read words that described their experience better than they could describe themselves. In that case, it may be justified to document this change in symptoms or new information and then change the diagnosis. 

The key is to constantly assess and to document your ongoing assessment and reason for any changes

So, let us know what you think about these dilemmas! Add your thoughts or tips in the comments below...