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Controversy Over Screening Heart Patients for Depression

Controversy Over Screening Heart Patients for DepressionA study published in a special edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) questions the American Heart Association’s recent suggestion that millions of North American cardiac patients be automatically screened for depression.

Such screening would involve administering a questionnaire and other tests to try to identify individuals who might have had no history or clinical indications of depression but who may, nonetheless, be depressed.

The AHA maintains that the link between depression and cardiac care is important.

But Dr. Brett Thombs of McGill and the affiliated Jewish General Hospital, and Dr. Roy Ziegelstein, of Johns Hopkins, say there is not nearly enough medical evidence to support such a “massive, expensive and labor-intensive undertaking,” and in fact provide evidence that testing for depression would not benefit patients in a cardiac care environment.

“It’s a very appealing idea that non-mental health professionals can administer a quick, easy-to-use depression screening test, and that would somehow benefit patients,” said Thombs, a psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine and at the JGH.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that it would be an extremely difficult undertaking that wouldn’t produce practical benefits for patients.”

The study drew upon a collection of more than 1,500 clinical studies from around the world, of which 17 were selected for detailed review.

“We discovered that screening alone or screening and referral doesn’t help most patients. This is true even in primary care where the doctor is usually better trained than a cardiologist to manage depression,” said Thombs.

“We see positive effects only in ‘enhanced care’ or ‘collaborative care,’ environments where they have mental-health specialists on call. And even there we only see tiny effects.”

The researchers found that treating depression in people with heart disease only accounted for a 1 per cent to 4 per cent change in symptoms compared with those treated with placebo.

This result, Ziegelstein said, is “too low to expect meaningful benefits for most people, particularly since screening methods are not very precise in identifying people who would benefit from the treatment.”

“Moreover, we found no connection at all between getting treated for depression and cardiovascular outcomes, like having a subsequent heart attack,” Thombs added.

“That said, in no sense are we saying that depression doesn’t matter. Depression leads to a great deal of suffering, cardiovascular effects aside, and it can definitely affect how well people take care of themselves after they’ve had a heart attack.

“We’re just saying we don’t have the tools in cardiovascular care settings to identify and improve the lives of people who aren’t already being treated for depression. What we really need is more research on how best to help heart disease patients adopt healthy behaviors that combat depression, such as how to stop smoking, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.”

Source: McGill University

Controversy Over Screening Heart Patients for Depression

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Controversy Over Screening Heart Patients for Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 18, 2019, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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