A team of Penn students has won a national public policy challenge to achieve positive change in their home towns. The challenge is posted annually by the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania, and attracts student teams from all over the country.

The four students on the winning team have different majors, but share a common interest: to improve the lives of people with mental illness.

Their overall goal seemed a bit overwhelming, says social work graduate student Kayla Cheatham. "Our team motto was 'think big and start small', so we focused on something very small and manageable, which is to just create an appointment reminder service."

Specifically, an appointment reminder for patients leaving psychiatric hospitals. Teammate Molly Viscardi, a doctoral student in the Penn School of Nursing, says follow-up care and therapy often fall through the cracks.

"Nationally, 42 percent of patients discharged from inpatient psychiatric care in a hospital miss their first appointment," explained Viscardi. "And when they miss that first appointment, they are much less likely to come to follow-up appointments, they are much less likely to take their medications, and more likely to end up back in the hospital."

Simple tool could have profound effect

The tool the team developed is called re:Mind. It's simple. When a patient leaves the hospital, the discharge planner makes a follow-up appointment at an outpatient clinic. They enter that info along with the patient's contact info into the system -- and re:Mind will then automate a series of reminders.

"They'll get a phone call reminder, like a voice mail," explained political science student Dan Bernick. "They can get an email if they request one. Most importantly, they'll get a text, because our evidence shows that text messages are especially effective at increasing attendance at that first outpatient appointment."

The team's research suggests they can get about a third of individuals who miss appointments to start showing up, Bernick said.

The students have teamed up with Community Behavioral Health in Philadelphia to launch the tool later this year.

Matt Hurford of Community Behavioral Health says his agency is very excited to implement re:Mind. "It's a simple, low-cost, high-impact strategy to help individuals who are leaving hospitals to connect with essential services," he said.

Over the next few weeks, the agency will solicit feedback from hospitals and clients to see how the tool could be most effective.

The Penn team won a total of $25,000 in prize money, and will use half of that to get re:Mind up and running.