Helping Police Divert Mental Health Patients From ERs

Jose Luis Carrascosa/

A start-up wants to use a mobile app to allow clinicians and case workers to do remote patient evaluations when law enforcement officers respond to mental health calls.

Law enforcement officers responding to calls about people experiencing mental health crises need to make snap judgments about whether to take people to emergency rooms, jails or mental health facilities.

In Texas, about 10 percent of 911 calls statewide involve people with severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, said Liz Truong, co-founder and chief clinical officer of Cloud 9, an Austin-based start-up.

To ease the burden on police to make what are often medical decisions, many jurisdictions have begun clinical co-responder programs, which place social workers or other experts with first responders to divert mental health patients away from ERs or jails.

“It’s proven. It works,” Truong said. But she noted that these efforts can become expensive for law enforcement agencies. 

Truong’s company instead created a mesh network in first responder vehicles that allows police officers to communicate remotely with a multidisciplinary team of medical professionals to provide them with guidance. Clinicians can be in multiple cop cars at once virtually via the Cloud 9 mobile app.

The first responder can video chat a physician, therapist or case worker to evaluate the patient at the scene and direct them to a clinic or mental hospital instead of the ER, Truong said.

“A law enforcement officer a lot of times only knows what was reported on the 911 call,” she said.

But a case worker or clinician working remotely can figure out whether the patient previously has been in the criminal justice system or a county clinic and access information about those experiences that may help the officer de-escalate a tense situation, she added. Medication sometimes can be prescribed on the spot, and the Cloud 9 app allows for the routing of a patient to a county clinic or psychiatric hospital and scheduling of appointments.

Cloud 9 aims to work with county clinics and their providers because “usually they have the infrastructure in place” and all that’s needed is training on the software platform, Truong said. Provider networks can also be supplied.

Cloud 9 has completed two successful pilots in Texas, including one with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. ER and jail visits were reduced by 22.5 percent, saving the county an average of $847 per call, Truong said.

Participating in the $10,000 Civic I/O pitch competition, in which Cloud 9 is one of six finalists, at SXSW could help the company scale. The company is looking to move into other states.

“We are absolutely looking to bring our product national because this is a national epidemic,” Truong said.