In Sight, In Mind: Keeping the Focus on Progress

How easy it is to let things just slip by. “Out of sight, out of mind” seems to be human nature, but if we want to optimize our chances of success, we have to keep our goals in view and measure our progress along the way. Believing something is important or meaningful can keep us actively engaged, but even then it can be a challenge to stay focused on what we hope to achieve.

This is what many people experience when they begin a data-driven process in a behavioral or mental health setting. It’s not easy to consistently record and analyze data. It is time-consuming, and we have to fit it in among so many other priorities. People don’t enter behavioral health because they are naturally drawn to numbers and graphs and analyses. They usually choose this work because they want to, to help individuals with needs lead more functional, integrated, and satisfying lives. Time spent on data entry or management can feel like a distraction.

So then, how do we create an environment that places a high emphasis on both the human quality of our work and the benefits possible from using data to improve that work?  I would suggest a number of things.  First, I believe we need to have a clear sense of the factors that can improve clients’ quality of life and write goals that will allow us to detect improvement in these factors over time. We need to have an easily accessible and streamlined process in place so that data management does not feel overly burdensome. We need to reinforce opportunities to use data to drive decision-making. We need to learn from cases, both where the process has yielded positive outcomes and where our efforts have not been successful. We need to make sure the process is valued and integrated throughout our organizational culture.

And we need to tell stories that remind us of why and how data can truly change lives.  For example, I was involved with a case where an individual experienced a high level of anxiety in the presence of others, even his closest family members. For years, he had limited physical contact with people and could only tolerate the presence of one or two people in his space at a time. We put several goals in place around increasing his opportunities for interactions with others in a planned way, allowing him to have choices in the type of contact and activities.

There were many times that we had to reassess our work with him when he was not making adequate progress on these goals. Through intensive work over a period of about six months, however, he was able to enjoy a Christmas party with his entire family and several staff members together in the same room.  There is no doubt this outcome was the result of our desire to increased an individual’s functioning, integration, and life satisfaction. If we had not been able to monitor his progress over time and use data to make changes to our interventions along the way, he and his family may not have been able to share this holiday gathering and so many other interactions thereafter.

We would love to learn more about your experiences working with data.  What have you found helpful to keep you consistent in your data collection efforts? The work of doing good and “doing data” can be seen as a combination that blends both heart and mind. Do you have ideas of how to help develop both of these aspects and have a more balanced blending of the two in your work?  Or perhaps there has been a situation where a data-driven process improved a client/student’s outcome. We would love to hear it (though of course, be sure to omit identifying information).