Cancer mental health
Research by Kaiser Permanente has shown that early identification and treatment is key for breast cancer patients also facing mental health issues. Photo credit: Courtesy,

Kaiser Permanente in Southern California has implemented a new depression screening initiative for cancer patients after research showed the intervention was highly effective.

Officials hope to better identify patients in need of behavioral health care, scientists said Tuesday.

“Early identification and treatment for mental health issues is critical, yet depression and other mental health issues are often under-identified and under-treated in breast cancer patients,” said lead author Erin Hahn, a research scientist with Kaiser. “Our study showed that the use of implementation strategies to facilitate depression screening is highly effective and provided insights into how to create a sustainable program to help our cancer patients achieve the best possible health.”

Historically, it’s proved difficult to incorporate distress screenings during cancer care, since those patients tend to be vulnerable to mental health challenges.

Kaiser researchers set out to determine if a process of incorporating depression screening into routine clinical care might make a difference.

They separated oncology teams at different locations into two groups. In the first group, physicians and nurses received education about depression screenings, regular feedback on their performance, and support in determining the best ways to incorporate the work into their current duties.

In the second group – the control group – physicians and nurses received only education. Screenings were conducted using the Patient Health Questionnaire 9-item version, known as the PHQ-9.

All patients diagnosed with new breast cancers who had an oncology consultation between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2018, were included in the study. Researchers enrolled 1,436 members, 692 in the control group and 744 in the intervention group. The groups were similar in demographic and cancer characteristics.

In the intervention group, 80% of patients completed depression screenings versus less than 1% in the control group. Of intervention group screenings, 10% scored in the range indicating need for referral to mental health services. Of those, 94% received referrals. Of those referred, 75% completed a visit with a mental health provider.

Additionally, patients in the intervention group had significantly fewer clinic visits to the oncology departments, and no difference in outpatient visits for primary care, urgent care, and emergency services.

“The trial of this program was so successful that, with funding from our Care Improvement Research Team, we have rolled out depression screening initiatives across all our Kaiser Permanente medical oncology departments in Southern California,” Hahn said.

The research was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

– City News Service