Pediatricians increasingly are stepping in to prescribe drugs for anxiety and depression independently, easing the burden on subspecialists amid the child and adolescent mental health crisis, but a review of electronic health records highlights areas for improvement in delivering the care.
The findings were published online in Pediatrics.
The researchers, led by Talia R. Lester, MD, with the division of developmental behavioral pediatrics in the quantitative science unit at Stanford (Calif.) University, identified 1,685 patients aged 6-18 years who had at least one visit with a diagnosis of anxiety and/or depression in a large primary care network in northern California and who were prescribed an SSRI by a network primary care pediatrician (PCP). The team randomly chose 110 patients and reviewed charts from the visit when the SSRI was first prescribed (medication visit); the immediately previous visit; and immediately subsequent visit.
The chart reviews showed some encouraging signs. For example, when pediatricians prescribe an SSRI, 82% are appropriately documenting rationales for starting the medication at the medication visit. However, they are not monitoring medication side effects systematically, according to the report. Of 69 patients with a visit after the medication visit, fewer than half (48%) had documentation of monitoring for side effects.
Three areas for improvement
The researchers identified three main shortfall areas and suggested improvements.
PCPs often referred patients for unspecified therapy at the medication visit; however, they rarely prescribed evidence-based therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) (4% of patients). The authors suggested embedding a summary of evidence-based treatment into order sets.
Secondly, PCPs are not often using screening tools. The data show only 26% of patients had a documented depression- or anxiety-specific screening tool result at the medication visit. The authors recommend making the screening tools accessible through the EHR to increase use.
The researchers also found many patients didn’t have a follow-up visit after SSRI medication was prescribed. Even when they did, the range was so wide between the medication visit and the follow-up (7-365 days) that it’s clear pediatricians are taking inconsistent approaches to scheduling follow-up.
Half are seeing only their primary care pediatrician
About half of children and adolescents prescribed an SSRI by a pediatrician for mental health reasons were seeing only their primary care pediatrician, the data showed.
Eric M. Butter, PhD, chief of psychology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University, Columbus, pointed out in an accompanying editorial that some of the news in pediatricians’ expanded role is particularly encouraging.
Pediatricians, he noted, are making medication decisions consistent with decisions a subspecialist would make.
Of cases in which a subspecialist became involved after a pediatrician initiated medication, subspecialists changed the medication for only two patients, which “is encouraging because it validates pediatricians’ decisions,” Dr. Butter said.
It’s important for pediatricians to understand key evidence-based programs that can work in combination with medications to achieve better results, Dr. Butter said. For example, CBT can help with depression “and break the cycle of avoidance that worsens symptoms of anxiety.”
He highlighted Interpersonal Therapy for Adolescents, a 12-session treatment that “can also address depression by improving patients’ personal relationships.”
“No primary care pediatrician will have the training or time to implement the many treatments that are available,” Dr. Butter wrote. “However, pediatricians can work to understand the key features of the evidence-based treatments referenced by Lester et al.”
Most concerning statistics
Dr. Butter said the most concerning shortcoming in the pediatricians’ health care delivery was lack of referral for evidence-based psychological treatments and low rates for referral to access supports from schools through programs such as the education 504 plan and Individualized Education Plans.
Dr. Lester’s team found that pediatricians recommended that patients receive support from such programs in only 8% of cases.
“The children’s mental health crisis requires all child-serving health care providers to do more. Improved care for anxiety and depression in pediatric primary care is needed and does not have to be overly burdensome to pediatricians,” Dr. Butter wrote.
The authors and Dr. Butter declared no relevant financial relationships.
This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.