How does managed care use the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS) tool?

The Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths (CANS) assessment is a multi-purpose tool developed for children’s services to support decision making, including level of care and service planning, to facilitate quality improvement initiatives, and to allow for the monitoring of outcomes of services. It is one of the tools in the Transformational Collaborative Outcomes Management (TCOM) framework, developed by Dr. John S. Lyons, consisting of a set of Guiding Values and Core Principles, all centered on how to provide the best and most support to all those in need.

I am often asked “How does managed care use the CANS?” Managed care organizations, like Magellan, are increasingly using clinical decision support tools and implementing value-based programs; the CANS offers a common language to look at resource needs and make the balancing of resources more transparent.

John Lyons frames the use of the CANS as part of “Five Key Decisions”: access, engagement, appropriateness, effectiveness and transitions. This framework on CANS use may be helpful for understanding how managed care uses decision support tools, and the CANS in particular, as the CANS has bonus options beyond the usual clinical decision support tools.

In this post, I provide an overview of each of the Five Key Decisions to shed light on how managed care uses the CANS. I invite you to explore the topics below and follow the links to learn more in my series on the TCOM Conversations blog.


Access refers to screening for a target population, such as using CANS algorithms for matching needs to services. This identifies youth who will benefit from a certain level of care or service, as well as those who will not.

MCOs, with their advanced analytics capabilities, can provide valuable insights to state and local agencies to inform ongoing adjustments to algorithms to ensure that youth have access to the appropriate level of care.

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Key Decision 2, Engagement, is about bringing people from access — opening the door — to becoming equal partners in the helping system. Engagement is built on respect and understanding that youth and family are experts in their own lives and need to captain their own ships. Engagement uses a fully person-centered discovery and planning process.

MCOs are tasked with operationalizing engagement, often taking the form of a checklist with time-frames and standards for everything from forms, consents, plans, child and family meetings, authorization, and even how often helpers and family are required to meet.

Proper operationalizing of engagement allows for family and youth to participate as fully as possible in using the CANS for reflection, self-advocacy and self-direction.

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Appropriateness and Effectiveness

An appropriate service should be effective. These two Key Decisions are inextricably linked and are often the basis of medical necessity. Evidence-based practices assign a defined appropriate population and a set of measures demonstrating effectiveness and provide a good example of how the community at large and managed care can agree.

Standardized assessment is an established best practice for measuring appropriateness and effectiveness. The CANS in practice excels at both. When the practice is done well, youth and families flourish and successfully complete their programs.

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Using CANS algorithms for access and transition decision support is particularly helpful when celebrating successes. In behavioral healthcare, a discharge from a program can be seen as a success, but “success” may only be based on utilization or length of stay, and not on quality outcomes for the youth and family. The CANS is a functional outcomes measure, i.e., it measures how a youth and family is functioning in real life. As value-based programming expands, the CANS will be used for evidence of discharge success.

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Barbara Dunn, LCSW, ACSW, is director of program innovation and outcomes for Magellan Healthcare. She is the Conference Program Chair for the 16th annual TCOM Conference, A TCOM Cloud Gathering. Meeting Each Other Where We Are: Collaboration in a COVID-19 World. Learn more about the event here.

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