Talking about the Unicorn in the Room: Community Health Network

mental health centerI’ve visited a lot of mental health centers over the course of my career. Earlier this month, as we drove north of Indianapolis to meet with Community Health Network (CHNw), I expected something like what I’ve seen before. What we actually found may sound mythical, but I can assure you this unicorn is for real.

The CHNw Behavioral Health Pavilion is connected to Community Hospital North, a spectacular facility that was specially designed to promote a healing environment. The front entry to the glass-skinned, six-story patient tower features a two-story curved glass gallery, that casts an abundance of natural light on the open lobby, complete with Starbucks, self-playing grand piano, a glass-blown chandelier and more. It’s simply  breathtaking.

walkway with sky lightHowever, several CHNw staff could barely contain their enthusiasm about the new patient-designed, state-of-the-art cancer center that will open across the lawn in 2017. One of the most integrated systems in the nation, the sprawling North campus location alone features assisted fertility, orthopedics, neurology, child and pediatric services, and cardiovascular care in addition to a behavioral health crisis center and 123 bed psychiatric inpatient unit.

I think about RI International being a large behavioral health provider with nearly 900 staff. Community Health Network’s recent retreat of top leadership alone included over 900 people. With over 200 sites of care and affiliates, eight hospitals and 500 hundred physicians, CHNw is a $3 billion-plus healthcare powerhouse in 32 counties of Central Indiana.

open design care facilityIt’s hard to overestimate the significant advantages of a community mental health center being embedded in this large healthcare infrastructure. The crisis call center triage team utilizes the powerful Epic EHR which ties them into the entirety of their healthcare enterprise, and features an online patient portal  called MyChart. The CHNw inpatient psychiatric services have immediate access to the array of other disciplines just on the other side of the aptly-named gerbil tunnel.

I’m not sure we’ve yet encountered the level of investment in healthcare innovation that we observed from the CHNw team led by Suzanne Clifford, now Senior Vice-President of Integrated Primary Care, and former Indiana state mental health commissioner. Examples include their commitment to fully implement the Zero Suicide in Healthcare initiative, and the recent launch of a new website ( with a text-for-help hotline.

therapy dogBut, the most impressive aspect of CHNw by far was its leadership and their ever present personal ambition to exceptional care and the patient experience. Smiles and joy simply filled the room when staff member Keona entered, one of two Samoyed service dogs that work in the inpatient psychiatric unit.

Dr. Marlon Rollins is the Director, Operations of Behavioral Health Services and served as our host for the two day visit. On the final night of our stay, we asked about the origins of the high performance that we had observed at CHNw. My notes included many of the contributors: The Studer Group and “Hardwiring Excellence,”  a robust investment in performance improvement and the Baldrige Quality Model, and exceptionally strong clinical leadership (evidenced in including the Adverse Childhood Experiences rating system in the review of any suicides and “near misses”).


standards of behavior

r. Marlon Rollins, Candace Landmark, Thama Pittman & Kimble Richardson

It wasn’t a technical answer that Dr. Rollins gave us. Instead, he shared the New Year’s Eve 2013 suicide death of his sister Amber Rose, an Indianapolis nurse, and described how this event connected him in a deeper way to his purpose: to save lives.


It’s the elephant in the room. Integration.

There has been much fear among mental health leaders regarding the total integration of specialty behavioral health with hospitals and the larger healthcare system, and what being “swallowed up” might mean. Far from being a unicorn, we are likely to see mergers of mental health and hospitals occurring much more frequently in the future. The Indiana experience of Community Health Network and its capable and passionate leadership suggests that might be a vision to embrace everywhere.