While the potential for assessment practice is growing, so are the ways to streamline its use, say experts.

The Veterans Affairs (VA) health system, for example, has used some form of computerized psychological assessment since the 1970s. But computerization has really taken off in recent years, says Kathleen M. Lysell, PsyD, associate chief for mental health informatics at the VA.

The VA's computerized "Mental Health Assistant," in development since the mid-1980s, administered more than 2 million instruments during the last fiscal year. The package currently includes about 60 instruments, both public domain and copyrighted. The computer administers and scores assessments, then automatically transfers results into patients' electronic medical records.

That saves time and money, says Lysell, who's based in Honolulu. The computerized tests are faster to use than the pen-and-paper variety and also allow psychologists to easily track patients' progress by comparing current and previous results. And the VA's bulk buying power allows it to negotiate lower prices for licensed instruments.

Even when assessments aren't computerized, the process is becoming more streamlined.

"The assessment community is making tests more efficient while still maintaining their scientific grounding," says Alan Schwartz, PsyD, director of psychology at Christiana Care Health System's Wilmington Hospital in Delaware. "The community is creating tests that are relatively easy to administer, score and interpret."

That's especially important in inpatient settings, he says, where the amount of psychological assessment has dropped in recent years. The reduction has occurred in part because patients simply aren't hospitalized long enough to allow time for thorough testing. More efficient tests could reverse that trend, experts say. However, Schwartz notes, skilled clinicians will still be needed to interact with clients and interpret the results.

- R.A. Clay