In past years the study of service utilization has given a great contribution to the evaluation of mental health services. Nowadays, the challenge that must be faced is to obtain from service utilization research useful knowledge for clinical practice and service planning.
Psychiatric care organization should be based on coherent and comprehensive assessments of the population's morbidity and needs for care, and take into account costs and benefits of different forms of treatments in relieving mental disorders and meeting mental health needs. While the former issue has been widely studied, the last two are mostly unexplored. Specifically, there is limited amount of information available on the significance that certain patterns of service utilization, or changes in service utilization, may have for the patient, his/her relatives and the community, and on the correlation between certain characteristics of service utilization and the overall quality of care.
In this perspective, service utilization must not be considered an isolated step in the patient's career; the causal link between needs, use, and outcome of services should be identified. A full understanding of the role of service utilization in psychiatry thus necessitates taking into consideration events occurring at various steps of a person's history:
step 1: a person develops a mental disorder;
step 2: in certain cases this will determine a mental health service need;
step 3: in certain cases the service need will determine mental health service utilization;
step 4: use of mental health services will have a certain outcome.